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Feds fear 'impending doom,' Pa. is reopening


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 31, 2021
Dire warning, police cleared, Biden's back, official harassment, election echoes, no prize, and fighting gentrification with fecal tests. It's Wednesday. 
THE PUSH TO 2,000: We're nearing 2,000 Spotlight PA members! Help us reach this historic mark by contributing any amount right now to support our investigative journalism. Help put us over the top  »»

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration will reduce the six-foot rule for students in many schools to three feet and lessen the length of time schools must close after COVID-19 outbreaks, all as the state prepares for a rollback of pandemic rules amid contrasting signs of a "fourth surge."

The shift in school guidance mirrors updates from the CDC and takes effect April 5, all as more Pennsylvania schools eye a return to in-person classes. 
But the state is preparing to undertake a much broader rollback of COVID-19 rules on April 4, easing restrictions on indoor dining, gyms, movie theaters, and more against a backdrop of spiking case numbers and dire new federal warnings.

THE CONTEXT: Case numbers are rising in states nationwide, and Pennsylvania is no exception. WITF reports Pennsylvania's daily case average was up 53% last week from the beginning of the month. Hospitalizations were up, too, though officials note we're below December peaks on both fronts. 

Still, statements from the nation's top doctors this week included warnings about wrong-way case trends — even as vaccination rates move in the right direction — and against reopening too quickly or completely. The CDC's chief, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, described a sense of "impending doom."

Pennsylvania is not reopening completely, but on April 4 restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters will be allowed to raise their capacity to 75% — the highest level since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the state's vaccine rollout is still proving a mixed bag, with deadlines for open eligibility fast approaching and restaurant workers still not an eligible priority group despite being days from entering the most crowded dining rooms they've seen in a year.

Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam says the state is watching the case numbers closely but still pushing ahead with the rollback plan and a separate plan to grow the eligible vaccine pool.

Track COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations with Spotlight PA's county-by-county map.


“The intent was never to hit the May primary. It was impossible to do that."

—State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) on lawmakers' failure to enact election reforms, the same urged by local elections officials, in time for May's primary
VACCINE UPDATE: A five-month study of CU Boulder students is underway to determine the ability of COVID-19 vaccines to prevent coronavirus transmissions. A federal study published Monday found Moderna and Pfizer vaccines helped reduce the spread of the virus in real-world conditions. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
POST IT: Thanks, Robert S., for this relaxing shot of the Appalachian Trail, near Carlisle. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
NO CHARGES: There will be no charges for the Stroudsburg state troopers who fatally shot a man in the throes of a mental health crisis last year. Monroe County authorities say an investigation found the shooting of 19-year-old Christian Hall was a “classic suicide by cop scenario” and justified, the Pocono Record reports. Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump said he'll respond to the findings in a press conference today.

ROAD TRIP: President Joe Biden will be in Pittsburgh today to build support for a "green infrastructure plan" worth trillions. But Pittsburgh City Paper reports a long-stalled "zombie highway" project tied to redevelopment hopes for the river towns just beyond the city may test the Democratic Party's own vision for the future: economic growth via highways or with pedestrians, public transit, and cyclists in mind.

OUSTER: Calls continue for a Republican Schuylkill County commissioner to resign after four female employees accused him of sexual harassment and a local investigation found his conduct violated county policies. While local officials urge Commissioner George Halcovage to remove himself, state Sen. Dave Argall (R., Pottsville) said impeachment by state lawmakers is on the table, WFMZ reports. 

CLASS POLITICS: Echoes of the 2020 presidential election are ringing loudly in one Bucks County school district, especially after the board’s vice president posted photos of herself outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Pennridge School Board Vice President Joan Cullen hasn't been accused of doing anything illegal, WHYY reports, but she's become a lightning road in a collar county with changing politics.

'GUYS ONLY': The high of winning a bow-fishing trip at a Uniontown church raffle was short lived for Emmy Smaniotto, who says she was denied the prize because she's not a man. Rev. Bryan Kelley said the trip was intended for "guys only," adding, “In the days of sexual scandals and accusations, many pastors, including myself [...] will not put ourselves in a position that could bring about a false accusation," per McClatchy.

STRESS TEST: An anti-gentrification group in West Philadelphia wants fecal samples — yes, you read that right — from residents living near a new construction project. The goal? To determine if that development adversely affects their health and risk for colorectal cancer. A lawyer representing the developer told The Inquirer, “I was speechless."

PICTURE THIS: Artist Ron Donoughe spent 2019 painting life along the Monongahela River, from Brownsville to Braddock, completing 60 plein air works that can be found in a new book. Donoughe told Pittsburgh Current: “There’s a lot of natural beauty and industrial landscape to document. It’s really my mission: to document Western Pennsylvania."

'WHITEWASHING': The products of industrialist Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy are still visible across Pennsylvania 100 years after his death. The motives behind that philanthropy are less obvious. On April 18, the United Steelworkers union will host a virtual discussion attempting to reconcile two Carnegies: The philanthropist and the shrewd, union-busting capitalist.

SNOW DAY: April Fool's snow may not be a joke for some Pennsylvanians tomorrow. The Weather Channel says a sweeping cold front is on its way and likely to bring light accumulations to the commonwealth, with bigger totals expected in central New York and beyond. Somewhere, Punxsutawney Phil is smiling smugly. 

FIVE, SEVEN, FIVE: Submit a haiku. About Pennsylvania parks. Win at poetry. (Or you can send it to us and we'll feature it here.)

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Consonant

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Mary Ellen T., Becky C., Dixie S., Bill C., David I., Irene R., Neal W., Susan D., John H., Elaine C., Kim C., Paul H., George S., James B., Jessica K., Bob R., Dianne K., Heidi B., Suzanne S., Patricia R., Mary Kay M., Elizabeth W., Carol D., Joel S., John W., David W., Kerri G., Rick D., Dennis M., Martin C., Tish M., George L., and Marsha B. 
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