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Gov. Wolf: Close bars, eat-in restaurants, sports, and entertainment venues in Bucks, Montco, Chester, and Delco

Philadelphia Inquirer - 3/17/2020

Normalcy faded with each passing hour in the Philadelphia region and beyond Saturday as the coronavirus outbreak tightened its unprecedented grip on every aspect of public life.

Pennsylvania officials urged most businesses in Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester Counties to shut down now. If they didn't, officials warned, the governor or state's secretary of health could make them by invoking a law intended to protect public health.

"If we can slow the spread of this virus ... we can keep an enormous number of Pennsylvanians from needing the kind of emergency treatment at the same time that's going to overwhelm our health-care system," Gov. Tom Wolf said at an afternoon news conference. "Stay calm, stay home, and stay safe."

Wolf's list pares down life in those counties to bare essentials, voiding most excuses to leave the house aside from getting groceries, buying medication, and visiting a doctor. The list of nonessential businesses included gyms, hair and nail salons, retail, casinos, bars, community centers, golf courses, shopping malls, and even state liquor stores. Restaurants, Wolf noted, should stay open only for carry-out and delivery. Medical marijuana dispensaries can remain open.

Philadelphia, where there are four known cases of infection, was not mentioned.

The official number of coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania officially rose to 47 on Saturday, most of them in the southeastern corner of the state. There was one new confirmation in Philadelphia, two in Montgomery County, and one in Chester County. Approximately 402 of 13 million Pennsylvanians had been tested for coronavirus in the state, officials said.

Montgomery County has been the hardest hit by the virus with 20 cases, and among its newest involve two students, one a girl who goes to Methacton High School in Eagleville, the other an 18-year female from Lower Gwynedd. Most of those confirmed cases in Pennsylvania have largely been traced back to contact with the new coronavirus in another state or country.

In New Jersey, the number of confirmed cases was up to 69. Camden County has two of those cases, while Burlington has one.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney also asked the public to stay calm and safe, but said he wanted them to go out and "have dinner and tip your waitstaff, because they're struggling right now."

With temperatures hovering close to 60 degrees Saturday, Philadelphians obliged.

"We have to figure out a way that we can continue moving forward without panicking to the point where everything shuts down," Kenney said Saturday. "We may be healthier, but the economy will be in the tank, and we can't have that."

Later, on Twitter, Kenny explained that he was "attempting to show support for local businesses and stop panic."

Shoppers found supermarket shelves still empty Saturday, butchers out of meat. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board announced phased closures of Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, beginning Tuesday.

More schools and businesses and gathering places announced temporary closures of their own, everything from aquariums to churches to prison visiting rooms on both sides of the Delaware River. Just a day after its owner, Simon Property Group, told King of Prussia Mall retailers they could stay open if they chose to, it reversed course and abruptly ordered everyone out Saturday morning.

The mall will be closed for two weeks.

"They were going up and down the hallways yelling 'Get out now!' " said A.J. Moore, who operates an arts and crafts shop above the Yankee Candle there.

Moore said business had dropped drastically during the last few days, but she did manage to sell 10 "F#@k Covid-19" shirts Saturday for $25 a piece.

"People were taking selfies with them and posting them to Instagram," she said. "Even as I was walking out of the mall I was selling them," she said.

St. Patrick seemed to drive the coronavirus concern from revelers who threw on surgical masks and Kelly green to celebrate the holiday at local bars.

"It's in the back of my mind, but it wasn't something that was going to stop me from this weekend," said J.J. Booth, 30, of Conshohocken, who was barhopping around Center City on Saturday afternoon.

In Atlantic City, more than 2,000 revelers flocked to the Ducktown Tavern, an after-party for a St. Patrick's Day parade that never happened.

"Slammed," said owner John "Johnny X" Exadaktilos when asked how the alt-parade festivities were going.

In Philadelphia, Vilnis Chakars, 16, woke early with butterflies in his stomach and headed over to Roxborough High School to take the SATs. The Masterman student waited in the parking lot with other teens and their parents, until someone opened the door and broke the news: test canceled.

"I think he's secretively relieved," said his mother, Melissa.

Signs posted to the door of The Independence Visitor Center Saturday said the building would close at 5 p.m. "until further notice." Officials said the change reflects hours of operation only, however, and the visitor center remains open. Jeff Breton, a lawyer from Manhattan, left the visitor center before noon Saturday, and headed for a tour of Independence Hall. He was in town to celebrate his son Finn's eighth birthday.

Meanwhile, on the Ben Franklin Parkway, all museums were closing.

"I don't know if it's absolutely necessary," Breton said of the closings. "I take the subway packed with hundreds of people every day. Unless you have a lot of people in a small space, I don't feel like it needs to be closed."

In Montgomery County, business owners were confused about the state of the lockdown, whether they had to close or would be forced to. Nearly all of them worried about the future, like Tom McDevitt, owner of the Flower Shop in Spring House.

He's worried about weddings, proms, high school plays, all the reasons why people buy flowers. And Mother's Day ... he doesn't even want to think about it.

"If we're closed for Mother's Day, I don't know," he said. "It would just kill us."

And the coronavirus news continued, by the minute.

Just before 8 p.m., Temple University announced that a student who lives off campus and traveled to Spain during spring break has tested positive for the virus. His symptoms are mild, the school said, and the university has notified the city health department.

Ten minutes later, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that a woman in her 50s with the coronavirus died at a Monmouth County medical center. That's the state's second death.

"Please wash your hands frequently and practice social distancing," Murphy said in the tweet. "We will get through this together."

Contributing to this article were staff writers Amy S. Rosenberg, Heather Khalifa, Diane Mastrull, Sean Collins Walsh and Susan Snyder, along with Sara Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA and the Associated Press.

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(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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