HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s coronavirus death toll rose by one on Saturday as lawyers for Gov. Tom Wolf asked a court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging his authority to shutter “non-life-sustaining” businesses, declaring that unprecedented action is needed to combat a global pandemic they called “perhaps the biggest catastrophe of our lifetimes.”
The Allegheny County Health Department confirmed the death Saturday and described the person as an adult in the late 60s who had been hospitalized.
More than 370 coronavirus cases and two deaths have been reported in Pennsylvania. Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the state is seeing a spike in cases because more people are getting infected, not because testing has expanded. She also revealed Saturday that Wolf’s administration is considering a “shelter in place” order to ensure people stay at home.
Wolf has already discouraged people from going out, if they can avoid it, and ordered schools shut through March, at least.
In a legal filing late Friday, the state attorney general’s office said Wolf is empowered by the state’s Emergency Management Services Code to shutter businesses and to restrict people’s movements in a disaster.
“COVID-19 presents an extraordinary challenge that requires extraordinary measures to combat. The governor was empowered by law to combat precisely this challenge,” the filing said.
The state Supreme Court did not immediately rule on a lawsuit challenging Wolf’s authority to shut down gun shops and other companies. A second lawsuit, filed by a Harrisburg-area law firm, was withdrawn Saturday, one day after the Wolf administration relaxed its blanket closure of law offices.
Wolf has justified his edict that tens of thousands of businesses shutter their doors indefinitely by citing big, daily upticks in the number of COVID-19 cases that health officials say threaten to overwhelm hospitals and spike the death toll.
Under pressure from Republicans and business owners, Wolf agreed to delay enforcement of the shutdown order until Monday. His administration also agreed to exempt additional businesses from the shutdown, including the timber industry, coal mines, hotels, accountants and laundromats.
A gun shop claimed in a lawsuit that Wolf’s edict violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms and other constitutional rights.
Wolf’s lawyers said that nothing in his order prevents a citizen from owning a gun.
“Petitioners’ argument that the global COVID-19 pandemic is somehow not a disaster demonstrates a dangerous level of myopathy about the effect this pandemic could have on the citizens of the commonwealth and our health care system if the spread of this disease is not arrested,” the attorney general’s office wrote.
Wolf’s administration has steadfastly refused to confirm to The Associated Press whether gun shops are covered by his shutdown order. Its legal filing said the governor’s office used industry codes generated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to construct its list of businesses covered by the shutdown order.
“Any business would already know which sector it occupies and its corresponding NAICS code,” the filing said.
On Saturday, Joshua Prince, a lawyer challenging the governor’s edict, called the legal filing “merely another smoke and mirrors response by the commonwealth, as it is acutely aware that there is no NAICS code relative to the sale, manufacture or transfer of firearms and ammunition.”
He said the coding issue arises frequently for federal firearms licensees when they attempt to procure financing, “as there is no applicable code.”
Wolf’s legal team also said that voluntary requests for Pennsylvanians to stay away from one another and for businesses to close their doors and have employees work from home proved ineffective at slowing the spread of the disease, requiring more drastic action.
“Pennsylvanians refused to voluntarily engage in ‘social distancing’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving Governor Wolf with no option other than to close nonessential businesses to ‘lessen the curve’ of the disease,” the filing said.
Allegheny County’s death brought to two the deaths reported in the state.
State health officials on Saturday reported more than 100 new cases in Pennsylvania, for a total of more than 370, with about 40 people requiring hospitalization. Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city had confirmed its first positive case in a nursing home resident.
Levine said people with mild symptoms do not necessarily need to get tested, and, after calling their doctor, they may be able to stay home, rest, take fluids and anti-fever medication.
Testing is being prioritized for symptomatic people who are health care providers, elderly, have chronic medical conditions or are very ill, Levine said.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
Wolf’s administration on Saturday suspended a number of administrative requirements for nurses, including some licensing requirements and temporarily extending license expiration dates as it tries to find ways to boost staffing levels at hospitals to deal with a surge of patients stricken with the new virus.
State officials say the deadline for taxpayers to file 2019 Pennsylvania personal income tax returns has been extended to July 15.
The Internal Revenue Service earlier extended the federal tax filing deadline to July 15.
The state Department of Revenue said Saturday that it will also waive penalties and interest on 2019 personal income tax payments through the new deadline of July 15. Under Pennsylvania law, the filing deadline for personal income tax returns is tied to the federal income tax due date, officials said.
The Philadelphia-area transit system says it is projecting a budget deficit of at least $150 million and is considering further service reductions following “massive, sudden ridership losses” amid the coronavirus outbreak.
General manager Leslie Richards of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said other measures aimed at stemming the losses also include a hiring freeze, elimination of overtime and a 10% pay cut for top executives.
SEPTA said it estimates a budget deficit of at least $150 million by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30 due to revenue losses. The authority said it had a $7.3 million budget surplus as recently as the end of February.
The authority said it was working closely with state and local officials and staying in touch with members of Congress on “a possible federal relief package for public transportation.” A letter sent to employees said further service reductions on Regional Rail and Transit were being considered.