*Updated July 17, 2020
Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Pennsylvania, we’ve been deluged with questions about what state government is doing. Below are the top 10 questions we’ve been asked with our quick answer and links to additional resources.
1. Are Governor Wolf’s actions legal?
The governor’s declaration of a disaster emergency is legal per the Emergency Management Services Code, which carries the “force and effect of law.” The law provides that during a disaster emergency, the governor is the commander in chief of military forces and can assign authority by prior regulatory arrangement.
Additional powers to cope with the emergency include:
- Suspending provisions of regulatory statutes if they hinder dealing with the emergency.
- Directing personnel or functions of commonwealth agencies to facilitate the services.
- Within applicable requirements, commandeering and utilizing private, public, or quasi-public property.
- Compelling evacuation of threatened areas.
- Controlling movement within, to, and from a disaster area.
- Giving law enforcement the power to arrest as part of the emergency forces.
On June 9, via concurrent resolution, the legislature ordered Governor Wolf to rescind his extension of the 90-day disaster declaration. Governor Wolf argues that the resolution is not valid without his signature and asked the Pa Supreme Court to sustain his emergency declaration. The Pa. Supreme Court ruled 4-1-2 in the governor's favor. A constitutional amendment (SB 1166) to require a concurrent resolution from the legislature to extend an emergency order past 21 days passed both chambers with bipartisan support. It would need to pass again in the next legislative session and be approved by the voters to become law, but it does not require the governor's signature.
2. What is Wolf “ordering” vs “recommending?”
Governor Wolf has issued a combination of recommendations and orders to Pennsylvania departments, largely in connection with the disaster emergency granting the governor additional powers. Here is a brief timeline:
- March 4 – Wolf ordered the activation of the Commonwealth Response Coordination Center to support the Department of Health’s Department Operations Center to coordinate COVID-19 responses across Pennsylvania.
- March 6 – Wolf proclaimed a disaster emergency throughout Pennsylvania, allowing additional measures to be taken to protect public safety and health.
- March 13 – Wolf ordered the closure of all K-12 schools for 10 business days starting March 16.
- March 14 – Wolf strongly urged closing non-essential businesses in mitigation counties (Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery).
- March 17 – Wolf expanded upon this mitigation and recommended and issued guidance for the closure of all non-essential businesses for 14 days across all 67 counties, in addition to supporting no-visitor policies for certain facilities and suspension of gatherings of more than 10 people. While non-essential businesses still had the choice to remain open or comply with the recommendations, he ordered restaurant and bar dine-in facilities to close, under threat of penalty, and for state employees to work virtually as able.
- March 18 – The governor requested the federal U.S. Small Business Administration to implement a disaster declaration in order to provide low-interest loans to eligible Pennsylvania businesses and non-profits. The Small Business Administration has provided loan resources and guidance.
- March 19 – Wolf ordered all “non-life-sustaining businesses” to close at 8pm, with enforcement actions for non-compliance beginning 12am on Saturday, March 21. Enforcement was delayed, however, until 8am on March 23 due to waiver requests approaching 10,000 over the weekend. This order superseded previous business closure recommendations.
- Local officials and the following state agencies are directed to enforce closure orders: the Liquor Control Board, Department of Agriculture, State Police, and the Department of Health.
- Enforcement measures include citations, fines, or license suspensions, and forfeiture of businesses' right to receive disaster relief aid. The Department of Health can also prosecute noncompliant entities with fines and even imprisonment.
- Here is a list of impacted entities, which does not apply to virtual or telework operations. Businesses could submit questions and apply for closure waivers.
- Courts were also closed to the public with essential functions determined at each court level.
- The governor said he would not deploy the state policy of National Guard to enforce the orders or recommendations, instead opting to support local law enforcement and officials.
- March 23 – Wolf extended school closures another two weeks and issued a stay-at-home order in seven counties. Roads, pharmacies, grocery stores, and essential businesses remain open.
- The stay-at-home list was extended to all 67 counties.
- March 30 – The governor closed businesses and school indefinitely.
- March 31 – The president approved part of Wolf's request for a major disaster declaration, providing federal funding for all levels of Pennsylvania government to respond to COVID-19.
- April 1 – The administration announced the waiver application process would close on April 3, 5pm. At the time of announcement, the state had received more than 34,000 waiver requests, approving 5,600 and denying over 8,600.
- The administration has since begun allowing certain industries to reopen under guidance. These include: non-essential construction and online car sales (May 1), limited real estate transactions (April 28), and golf courses, guided fishing trips, and privately owned camping grounds (May 1).
- April 9 – Wolf extended school closures for the remainder of the academic year.
- April 17 – Wolf announced a process to reopen Pennsylvania. The twice revised plan will be implemented on a county level in three phases, incorporating measures such as fewer than 50 new confirmed cases per 100,000 county residents over the previous 14 days, testing availability, contact tracing capabilities, and modeling dashboard data from Carnegie Mellon University.
- April 27 – Health Secretary Levine announced guidance for elective procedures to resume at health care facilities days after UPMC announces they will resume elective surgeries.
- On April 28, the Supreme Court extended the closure order through June 1 and directed county courts to resume a broader range of operations on May 4, “giving priority to critical matters and remaining focused on protecting the health and safety of court users, personnel and the public.” Specifically, President judges have substantial authority in deadline enforcement, Magisterial District Court payment suspension will end May 11, and criminal and civil jury trials remain suspended.
- April 29 – Wolf releases cross-agency guidance on telehealth.
- May 8 – Wolf announces that construction can resume under guidelines. Wolf had issued the construction industry guidance on April 23. The first round (“yellow phase”) of reopening occurred in 24 counties: Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango, and Warren.
- May 15 – Another 13 counties entered the yellow phase: Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland.
- May 19 – Wolf announces guidance for real estate industry and allows for limited real estate activities.
- May 22 – Twelve more counties move to yellow: Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Wayne, and York.
- May 27 – Wolf issues guidance on dining and professional sports in yellow/green counties.
- May 29 – 17 counties move to green: Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren. Eight counties move to yellow: Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Lebanon, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, and Schuylkill.
- June 4 – Wolf allows stay-at-home order to expire.
- June 5 – 16 counties move to green: Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Clinton, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Indiana, Lycoming, Mercer, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland. 10 counties move to yellow: Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton, Montgomery and Philadelphia.
- June 10 – Wolf issues preliminary guidance for high school and recreational sports teams to resume activities. Wolf releases updated guidance on outdoor recreation in the yellow and green phase.
- June 12 – 12 counties move to green: Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Northumberland, Union, Wayne, Wyoming and York. 10 counties move to yellow: Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton, Montgomery and Philadelphia.
- June 19 – 8 more counties more to green: Dauphin, Franklin, Huntingdon, Luzerne, Monroe, Perry, Pike, and Schuylkill.
- June 26 – 12 more counties move to green: Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northhampton, Philadelphia, and Susquehanna.
- July 3 – Wolf announces Lebanon county will move to green on July 3rd, putting all 67 counties in green. Secretary Levine issues a mandatory mask wearing order.
- July 2 – Philly moves to a modified green phase that reopens most businesses with diminished capacity and outdoor-only dining, delaying further reopening to August 1.
- July 15 – Wolf signs a new mitigation order with restrictions for bars, restaurants, gatherings, and telework.
3. What is an essential business, or a “life sustaining” business? Which businesses are required to close?
The Department of Economic and Community Development provides a continuously updated list of businesses considered essential and non-essential. Generally, any restaurant (except for take-out), recreational, or retail business is asked to close. Examples include hair salons, golf courses, concert venues, and shopping malls.
Daycare centers are considered non-essential, but providers enrolling children of health workers can apply for waivers to serve those families.
On March 19, the Governor's Office released a new list of life-sustaining businesses; after challenge, this list was updated on March 20 and numerous times since. Businesses could apply for a waiver via email to [email protected] or by filling out this waiver application. The waiver application process closed April 3.
Governor Wolf’s plan for reopening businesses is composed of three phases: red, yellow, and green.
In the yellow phase, businesses that require close contact with customers must remain closed. All other businesses are permitted to conduct in-person operations, though the following restrictions apply:
- Telework must continue where feasible
- Businesses with in-person operations must follow business and building safety orders
- Child care may open complying with guidance
- Large gatherings of more than 25 prohibited
- Masks are required when entering a business
- In-person retail is allowable, curbside and delivery preferred
- Restaurants and bars may open outdoor dining, in addition to carry-out and delivery
- All businesses must follow CDC and DOH guidance for social distancing and cleaning.
In the green phase all businesses may open, but in-person operations must follow updated Business and Building Safety Requirements. Businesses operating at 50% occupancy in the yellow phase may increase to 75% occupancy, while personal care services (hair salons or gyms), amusement, and restaurants and bars can reopen at 50% occupancy. In addition:
- Congregate care restrictions remain in place
- Prison and hospital restrictions determined by individual facilities
- Schools subject to CDC and commonwealth guidance
- Large gatherings of more than 250 prohibited
- Masks are required in all public spaces
- Construction activity may return to full capacity
- Bar service is prohibited
- Alcohol can only be served for on-premise consumption with a meal
- Indoor dining occupancy limited to 25%
- All nightclubs must close
- Indoor gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited (but religious institutions are exempt)
- Outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people are prohibited
- Unless not possible, telework should continue for businesses
- Gyms and fitness facilities may remain open, with masking, social distancing, and limited occupancy
4. What is the state legislature doing?
The state legislature has passed temporary rule changes to allow for expedited, remote legislating. The House will allow members to remotely submit their votes to their respective legislative leaders and committee chairs, who must be present in the capitol, and the temporary rule suspended time requirements for passing bills.
Similarly, the Senate approved remote voting to respond to COVID-19, whereas they could previously only vote by proxy while on leave for legislative businesses. Senators can also file bills electronically and participate in committee meetings and session remotely.
In March, the General Assembly passed four pieces of emergency legislation, which were signed by Wolf on March 27. Notably, Senate Bill 751 waived the state’s 180 day instructional requirement for schools, cancelled standardized testing during the outbreak, and—most controversially—froze charter payments at March 13 levels.
Additionally, the legislature pushed back Pennsylvania’s 2020 primary election to June 2 via Senate Bill 422, provided emergency medical funding via House Bill 1232, and waived the waiting period and job search requirement for unemployment via House Bill 68.
The legislature has tried to reopen various industries, but have faced vetoes from Wolf:
- Senate Bill 613: Reopen businesses that adhere to federal guidelines (vetoed April 20)
- Senate Bill 857: Requires insurers to pay providers for telemedicine services (vetoed April 29)
- Senate Bill 327: Allow counties to implement their own mitigation plans (vetoed May 19)
- House Bill 2388: Allow car dealerships to open (vetoed May 19, failed veto override in the House)
- House Bill 2412: Allow some level of in-person real estate services (vetoed May 19)
- Senate Bill 1027: Limits the ability of the governor to revoke a business's license for reopening in violation of shut-down orders (vetoed May 29)
- House Bill 836: A concurrent resolution terminating the March 6, 2020 disaster emergency issued under Governor Wolf (vetoed July 14)
On April 14, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 841 that allows for property tax relief, remote public meetings, and remote notarization of documents.
The legislature also passed House Bill 327 (signed into law on May 21) that permits the temporary sale of cocktails-to-go from licensed bars, restaurants, or hotels.
On June 9, the legislature passed a concurrent resolution to end Governor Wolf’s emergency declaration.
On July 14, the legislature passed SB 1125, a bill that allows school districts to extend property tax discount periods and remove penalties for late payments through June 30, 2021.
On July 15, the legislature passed HB 2463, which requires state agencies to respond to Right-to-Know requests during the disaster declaration.
On July 15, the legislature also passed SB 1166, a constitutional amendment to require a concurrent resolution from the legislature to extend an emergency order past 21 days. The bill would need to pass again in the next legislative session and be approved by the voters to become law.
5. Will public schools reopen in the fall?
Virtual learning varied dramatically in the spring, and the same diversity in balancing virtual/physical instruction is expected in the fall. On March 21, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance for school districts to continue offering distance instruction without fear of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) law reprisal. On March 23, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera, issued the go-ahead for districts to proceed with their continuity of education plans.
The school district of Philadelphia initially forbade graded remote instruction , but later resumed formal instruction on May 4. Similarly, thousands of kids in Pittsburgh School District struggled. When remote learning began in Pittsburgh, over 7,000 students still needed laptops. Students in Erie began mandated online learning April 20, while some households still lack internet.
On July 16, PDE released Public Health Guidance Regarding COVID-19 for Phased Reopening of Pre-K to 12 Schools. Each school must create a Health and Safety Plan. Plan requirements include social distancing protocols, adjusting seating in buses, quarantine guidelines, cafeteria changes, mandatory face masks, and hygiene guidelines. The full guidelines can be found here.
Several school districts have released their Health & Safety reopening plans. An interactive map of school districts that have submitted their Health and Safety reopening plans to PDE can be found here.
Eight education organizations, PACTA, PAIU, PA Principals Assoc., PARSS, PASA, PASBO, PSBA and PSEA have come together as part of a Back to School Taskforce to assist and support school leaders, administrators and educators as they plan for the coming academic year. Unfortunately, charter schools, who serve higher percentages of minority, special needs, and low-income kids than district schools, are missing from the list of decision-making players.
Similarly, cyber charter schools sent a letter to PDE offering assistance at the beginning of the crisis. Despite over 20 years of virtual education experience, PDE thanked cybers for their offer but chose to work with the PA Association of Intermediate Units to develop virtual programs for brick and mortar schools.
6. What is the status of cyber schools in Pennsylvania?
For the better part of twenty years, Pennsylvania cyber charter schools have specialized in educating kids remotely. Cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania were cleared to resume instruction in March. Pennsylvania cyber charter schools are enrolling for the fall.
For more information on how to enroll in a cyber school visit our how to guide.
Twelve cyber charter schools reported 1,600 Pennsylvania students enrolled in March and April. The General Assembly passed legislation to cap charters’ funding at pre-COVID enrollment levels, even though cybers were mandated to accept new students. Since charter school funding is based on enrollment, none of the children who enrolled in cyber charter schools after March 13 will have the tax dollars associated with their education follow them to their chosen school.
7. Where can I buy alcohol?
Beginning March 17, all state Fine Wine and Spirits stores were closed indefinitely, along with online sales and licensee service centers. State stores are the exclusive vendor of spirits in Pennsylvania, and the primary point of sale for wine. Online sales resumed April 1, sort of.
While brick and mortar stores were literally boarded up, online sales were virtually blocked. Thirsty Pennsylvanians previously denied their booze repeatedly crashed the website, with few buyers successfully placing an order.
On April 27, the majority of state liquor stores began accepting phone orders for curbside pickup. On May 21, the governor signed House Bill 327 that allows for the temporary sale of cocktails-to-go from licensed bars, restaurants, or hotels.
Local governments likes Allegheny county re-closed bars by banning onsite alcohol consumption over concerns of rising Covid-19 cases. The county re-opened bars for outdoor dining and limited drinks on July 10th.
On July 15, Wolf announced new mitigation orders for statewide bars. Bars can open if they provide dine-in meals or take-out drinks. Bar service is prohibited, and alcohol can only be served for on-premise consumption with a meal.
8. Can I drive the Turnpike? Is the DMV open?
The PA Turnpike remains open. Cash and credit card payments are not in use during the outbreak. Billing will be done either through EZ, or via billing by license plates. Vehicles without the EZ/pass should continue to use the “tickets” and “cash” lanes, but they will receive their bill in the mail.
PennDOT is allowing parking with portable restrooms at 13 of its 30 most used rest stops. Click here for the whole list.
DMV’s reopen in the yellow phase with limited hours and special hours for vulnerable individuals. Individuals can still apply for license and registration renewals online. Any registration or license that expires between March 16 and July 31, will now expire on July 31. The Real ID deadline was extended to October 1, 2021.
In June, PennDot resumed driver’s license tests. They are also offering an alternative method of obtaining a driver's licenses through a third-party noncommercial driver’s facilities. List of third-party testing facilities: http://www.dot.state.pa.us/public/dvspubsforms/BDL/BDL%20Form/DL-105nclf.pdf
9. Who qualifies for unemployment compensation?
Pennsylvania is experiencing record breaking unemployment compensation claims, surpassing 2 million since March. In fact, over a quarter of the state workforce was unemployed by the end of May. You may qualify for benefits if your employer temporarily closes or goes out of business or reduces your hours, or you’ve been told not to work to limit the spread of COVID-19 or been told to quarantine or self-isolate.
The fastest way to apply is online via this website. Note the waiting week and work search requirements have been temporarily waived. Extended benefits for those that remain unemployed after exhausting regular unemployment compensation are now available. Workers can collect extended benefits for up to 13 weeks depending on their regular unemployment compensation eligibility.
10. How many cases of Corona Virus are there in Pennsylvania?
The Pennsylvania Health Department maintains a map that is regularly updated.
Chart: Tracking Pa. COVID-19 Cases
- Pa. Chamber of Business and Industry resources.
- John Hopkins Corona Virus Resource Center international map.
- Governor Wolf’s emergency declaration.
- Pa. state resource guide.
- Pa. Department of Health daily updates.
- Pa. Department of Education FAQ.
- Contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “PA” to 741-741.