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Get answers to your questions about Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus | Ask Spotlight PA

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The Spotlight PA team is answering your questions about Pennsylvania's response to the coronavirus.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Philadelphia Inquirer

This story was produced as part of a joint effort between Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group, PennLive, PA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus. Sign up for Spotlight PA’s newsletter.

The news is moving fast and our team is ready to help you cut through the confusion. If you have questions about what the state government is doing, an experience you want to share or a story you think we should pursue, use the form below and we’ll provide as many answers here as possible.

If you value this service, please consider making a small donation today to help us keep it going.

>> MORE: Read the complete list of “life-sustaining” businesses.

Q: I work in a one-person office and have shifted to working from home. Can I go to my office to pick up supplies?

A: Yep! Under the stay-at-home order, which now applies statewide, you’re allowed to travel to obtain the supplies you’ll need to work from home. But be careful to keep your distance from others while you’re out, then wash your hands (and wipe down the office supplies!) thoroughly when you get back.

Find out more here.

— Sara Simon


Q: Why can’t I order alcohol online?

A: You can — sort of.

On Wednesday, the state Liquor Control Board said it is restarting online orders, but access to the website is randomized “to avoid overwhelming the site with high traffic, prevent order abuse, and prolong access throughout the day, so that order availability isn’t exhausted in seconds or minutes each day.”

Customers have a six-bottle purchase limit, and each household can submit only one order daily.

“We understand the public wants to have access to wines and spirits during these unprecedented times, but we have a responsibility to mitigate community spread of this virus to every extent possible and make sure our employees and our customers are as safe as they can be,” Board Chairman Tim Holden said in a statement.

— Cynthia Fernandez


Q: My car is due for an inspection soon. What should I do?

A: Sit tight! PennDOT is granting extensions. If your vehicle registration, safety inspection, or emissions inspection is set to expire before April 30, you’re in the clear until May 31.

If you don’t want to wait, your vehicle registration might be eligible for an online renewal. You can access PennDOT’s online portal here. A word of warning, though: You will need a printer.

— Sara Simon


Q: My office is closed, but some work tasks require me to be there in person. Under Gov. Wolf’s new orders, can I go to the office for a few hours a day to complete some in-person tasks?

A: Here’s the technical answer, according to an FAQ from the governor’s office:

For businesses that have stopped physical operations, essential in-person functions are allowed to continue — so long as the business limits the number of “on-site personnel” and complies with COVID-19 mitigation guidance, like requiring those people to keep a safe distance from each other.

The better answer? Given everything that public health experts are telling us about how the coronavirus spreads, it is in everyone’s best interest to stay home to the fullest extent possible. Is that office task truly essential, or would it just make things temporarily a little more convenient? It’s worth thinking through.

— Sara Simon


Q: Can we still make trips to the grocery store, pharmacies, and gas stations?

A: Yes. Even Gov. Tom Wolf’s most recent stay-at-home order for seven counties allows people to leave their house for trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, and gas stations, since these tasks are considered essential for maintaining health and safety.Here’s the full list of activities still allowed during the two week stay-at-home order.

In general, elected officials and health experts are urging everyone to stay at home as much as possible. The less social contact people have, the fewer chances for the virus to spread. That could slow down the number of COVID-19 cases and ease the overwhelming burden on hospitals, they say.

— Aneri Pattani


Q: How many people have recovered from the coronavirus?

A: It’s a difficult question to answer accurately because we don’t know how many people have had the coronavirus in the first place. Researchers say about half of all people infected with the virus don’t show any symptoms, so they’re likely not counted.

But from the cases we do know, more than 100,000 people have recovered across the world, according to a case tracker created by Johns Hopkins University. Some news outlets have reported on recovery numbers particularly in the U.S.

— Aneri Pattani


Q: I was planning to attend the funeral of a loved one soon. What should I do?

A: The coronavirus isn’t just affecting how we live — it’s changing how we grieve, too.

Your best bet is to call the funeral home. Funeral homes in Pennsylvania have been advised to postpone public memorials, livestream services, and cap attendance at 10 people. Specific restrictions might apply based on the county, too. The funeral director will be able to help you find the right solution for your situation.

One small piece of solace. When I reported last week that funeral directors were bracing for uprooted norms, I heard the same message again and again: It’s very important to grieve.

The grieving process might look a little different these days. But Gov. Tom Wolf has declared the death industry an essential business, and funeral directors across the state are preparing to help us all through this.

— Sara Simon


Q: Are cyber schools expected or mandated to close for an additional two weeks?

A: Yes.

On Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf extended the closure of schools statewide. According to the state Department of Education, schools will be closed until at least April 6.

All schools — including “public K-12 schools, brick and mortar and cyber charter schools, [and] private and parochial schools” — are included under the order, according to the department’s website.

“We know students are eager to engage with their teachers and return to learning,” Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said Monday. “Beginning tomorrow, all schools will be able to work with their local intermediate unit to develop instructional plans for all students, including those with disabilities and English language learners.

— Cynthia Fernandez


Q: Why are the food stores not taking steps to prevent hoarding?

A: Many stores are, in fact, taking steps to limit hoarding of essential items. Several supermarkets and big-box stores are limiting the amount of cleaning supplies and pantry staples that customers are allowed to buy.

At the more than 160 Acme stores in Pennsylvania, customers are limited to five items each of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Wegmans is capping buyers at three bottles each of hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, alcohol wipes, and hydrogen peroxide per order. ShopRite is limiting buyers to four counts of fever-reducing medicine, bleach, and bottled water, among other items.

These articles provide information on other stores, and you can also visit their individual websites for policy notices.

As a reminder: Public health officials have generally recommended against stockpiling items. They advise buying things you normally buy and visiting the grocery store weekly if that’s normal for you. Panicked buying can cause a domino effect that then leads to more stockpiling.

— Aneri Pattani


Q: Are private wedding and shower venues closed, even if they are on farmland?

A: Weddings venues are not life-sustaining, according to the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Keep in mind, Wolf’s order only applies to businesses with brick-and-mortar operations.

“Any business that can continue to conduct virtual or telework operations through employees working at their homes is encouraged to do so,” spokesperson Rachel Wrigley said.

Businesses can apply for waivers. Wrigley emphasized that the department is reviewing the governor’s list to ensure essential services are able to operate during the disaster declaration.

“Businesses, which are listed for closure but believe that they could help mitigate this crisis by providing a life-sustaining service, will be given an opportunity to apply for a waiver,” she said.

She said businesses seeking waivers and exemptions to Gov. Tom Wolf’s closure order should email ra-dcedcs@pa.gov. Those that are seeking waivers can contact RA-dcexemption@pa.gov for assistance.

You can see the governor’s current list of life-sustaining businesses here.

— Cynthia Fernandez


Q: Why are laundromats not considered essential businesses?

A: As of March 20, they are.

State Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) tweeted Friday that the governor’s office has issued new guidance on laundromats, declaring them life-sustaining.

“Laundry services and dry cleaners should remain closed,” Williams said.

—Cynthia Fernandez


Q: How will the shutdown of many businesses and subsequent economic impact affect the suicide rate in Pennsylvania?

A: No one can say for sure since a lot of different factors affect suicide, but plenty of research links economic hardship and unemployment to increased suicide rates, especially in the U.S.

Two prominent researchers who spoke with The Philadelphia Inquirer said, “it would not be an unreasonable prediction that suicide rates and drinking and drug overdose would go up during this pandemic.”

In the last several years, researchers have been finding links between stagnant wages, decimated unions, outsourced labor, and the decreasing social and economic value of a high school diploma to higher rates of death from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease.

Experts are trying to help by providing tips on caring for your mental health during the pandemic.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Line by texting “PA” to 741741.

— Aneri Pattani


Q: I work at a warehouse. Where can my business donate my N95 masks?

A: The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the state Department of Health are accepting donations of supplies that may be needed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Businesses should contact PEMA at pabeoc@pa.gov and the health department at Ra-dhcovidquestions@pa.gov.

In the initial email, you should include the name of your company, contact information, the type of item, and the amount of items you want to donate.

What if you are not a business, but still want to help?

“For the general public, we want people to take action to help others,” said Nate Wardle, a spokesperson for the health department. While the best way to help is staying home, individuals can donate blood and non-perishable items to food banks while practicing social distancing.

Wardle added, “Often, during disasters, the donation of items can cause more of a concern, because items donated may not be what is needed,” he said.

— Cynthia Fernandez


Q: Should Narcotics Anonymous meetings close?

A: At this point, most in-person meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous have been canceled, and many have moved online. Advocates say meetings in southeastern Pennsylvania, which often attracted groups of 50 or more people, were the first to close. But many smaller meetings in the rest of the state are following suit, as the churches and rec centers which host them are closing their doors.

Here are some resources to learn about canceled in-person meetings and find online alternatives:

— Aneri Pattani


Q: Why aren’t supermarkets limiting the number of people allowed in the stores?

A: Because there are too many of us, said Alex Baloga, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association.

“We are trying to make sure they are open and available,” and meeting the increased demand for food and supplies.

“It would be difficult to accommodate,” he said, but many supermarkets are now reducing their hours to clean and disinfect items in the stores.

—Cynthia Fernandez


Q: My boss decided to stay open, but I do not have any vacation days or sick days. Can I receive unemployment?

A: Yes, but you have to let your boss know about your coronavirus concerns and give them a chance to address the issues.

If your personal health or the health of your family is at risk by going into work, then you may have “necessitous and compelling” reasons to voluntarily leave employment, according to Julia Simon-Mishel, a supervising attorney in the unemployment compensation unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

If an employer refuses to address your concerns, then you can take a leave of absence or quit, and you should be able to receive unemployment, she said.

This is also true if you are now unable to get transportation to work, Simon-Mishel said.

If you tell your employer you have health concerns and are fired, you should also be eligible for benefits.

Simon-Mishel recommends you inform your employer in writing and keep evidence of that.

—Cynthia Fernandez

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