HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday that the state’s stay-at-home order will remain in place until May 8, as more than 700 protesters rallied outside the state Capitol building, clamoring for the state to relax the business shutdown order sooner.
Wolf also said the state is preparing to relax the stay-at-home restrictions, beginning May 8, most likely in the rural areas of the state that have been least impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Most of the state’s coronavirus cases have been in Philadelphia and eastern counties.
“We’ll do it by region, and that means that if we opened in Cameron County, for example, that does not mean that we’re closing or ending the restrictions, the things that people ought to do in Philadelphia,” Wolf said.
Wolf added that the state will allow more construction activity to resume May 8, and announced his plan to sign legislation to allow notaries to complete their work online, which will allow online car sales.
The governor announced those steps even as he vetoed legislation passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that would have required him to develop a plan to allow businesses to reopen if they can meet federal safety guidelines.
“Reopening tens of thousands of businesses too early will only increase the spread of the virus, place more lives at risk, increase the death tolls, and extend the length of the economic hardships created by the pandemic,” Wolf said in his veto message.
Protesters at the Capitol maintained that the state could reopen more businesses more quickly than Wolf plans.
“We’re here to today because we believe that we can reopen the Pennsylvania economy and businesses can go back to work and follow the CDC guidelines and still successfully mitigate the virus,” said Zachary Cooper, a Lewisburg resident.
Cooper said he is two weeks away from graduating from Susquehanna University with an accounting degree after previous military service and working for a period in the Department of Corrections.
“If we continue on the path we’re on, we’re going to send ourselves into depression and starvation,” he said.
Cooper was right in the middle of the group of protesters at the bottom of the Capitol steps, surrounded by people waving American flags, flags bearing “Don’t Tread on Me,” and banners supporting the campaign of President Donald Trump.
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence County, was one of the speakers at the protest.
“Listen, we’ve taken this pandemic seriously. We’ve stayed home, avoided contact with the most vulnerable – I haven’t seen my grandma in six weeks,” Bernstine said.
“We’ve heard from in government across the country telling us to prepare for a ‘new normal. Let me tell you something, our new normal doesn’t mean we’ll sacrifice our freedoms for our safety,” he said.
The protesters were not allowed inside the Capitol, which has been closed to the public as part of the statewide shutdown. Capitol police restricted the protest to the bottom steps and sidewalk. For hours leading up the noon protest, cars filled with protest supporters cruised by, honking their horns, while music blared from speakers.
Troy Thompson, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, which manages the Capitol complex, said officials estimated that more than 700 people were at the protest.
Despite the ban on large gatherings, Wolf said he had no plans to seek to have the organizers charged for holding the protest.
“This is a democracy,” Wolf said about the protest, while adding that he hopes the protesters were taking steps to “stay safe” and limiting their exposure to illness.
Protesters clearly weren’t practicing social distancing principles but many were wearing masks.
State Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said that the protest Monday in Harrisburg and others like happened because people were “inflamed” by President Donald Trump.
State Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery County, said state leaders should focus on preparing to boost testing, monitoring and providing personal protective equipment for health care workers instead of having a “political food fight” over how quickly the state should allow businesses to reopen.
There were a small number of counter-protests, including nurses with Services Employees International Union holding signs that urged people to go home.
Wolf’s announced target date of May 8 is one week later than a May 1 start date proposed last week by Trump. Wolf’s original stay-at-home order was due to expire on April 30, before Monday’s announcement.
Under the White House plan, states wouldn’t be allowed to begin relaxing their restrictions until after they’d had two weeks of decreasing numbers of new cases.
While the state has seen slower increases in new cases, it’s not seen a sustained decrease in new cases. But the Department of Health announced Monday that for the first time since April 1, the number of new cases in Pennsylvania was below 1,000.
The state will need to dramatically ramp up the amount of testing it’s doing to be prepared to relax social-distancing restrictions said Alison Buttenheim, Associate Director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.
The state’s been doing between 4,000-6,000 tests a day of potential coronavirus cases. The state should increase that to at least 20,000 tests a day, along with increased contact tracing to determine who has been exposed to coronavirus, she said.
The state’s mitigation strategy has worked like a parachute that has slowed the spread of the disease. But relaxing social distancing protections before the state is prepared would be like “cutting the parachute cords” too soon, she said.
The electronic notary provision announced by Wolf is included in Senate Bill 841, which passed the General Assembly last week, and will allow online car sales. Pennsylvania law had banned remote work by notaries, barring car dealers from completing online sales while their dealerships are closed to the public.
The same legislation also clarifies that local governments can hold public meetings with elected officials establishing a quorum while on the phone or videoconference.