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Governor excoriates foes, federal court decision

In what was billed as a live-streamed press conference in York advocating for changes in Pennsylvania election law, Gov. Tom Wolf Tuesday addressed another topic: his handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The day before, federal Judge William S. Stickman IV, an appointee of President Donald Trump, declared as unconstitutional emergency actions Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine took in ordering the shuttering of some businesses and restricting gatherings that kept candidates from holding rallies, fundraisers and politicking door to door.

“Our early and decisive action saved lives,” said Wolf, a Democrat. “While the federal government dithered, Pennsylvania took action. Our hospitals were never overwhelmed, and research tells us thousands of lives were saved.

“So would we, in hindsight, do some things differently? Of course.

“Would I follow the irresponsible demands of the president or the Republican Legislature? Absolutely not.

“The vast majority don’t buy into conspiracy theories or fear mongering from the president or Harrisburg Republicans about this virus. They wear masks. They keep distance. They are smart about how they interact with others. They are responsible.”

As the death toll in the United States reached 195,000, Wolf called Pennsylvania both “reopened” and “a leader in the region in how we’ve kept deaths and sickness low.”

Since March, the state has witnessed 7,875 deaths and 146,214 cases of COVID-19.

“Containing the virus is the only way to protect our health and keep our economy going,” he continued.

The Wolf administration is both appealing “as far as necessary” Stickman’s declaratory judgment, and, in the short-term, asking for a stay until a higher court can weigh in.

The president re-tweeted several messages about the court case, for which the governor took him to task, and asked Republicans to “stop playing politics with this disease and stop fighting me.”

Washington County Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Nick Sherman, both of whom voted to join in the litigation, on Monday hailed Stickman’s ruling.

She called it “a victory for businesses in Washington County” while he saw it as precedent-setting for how governors would respond in future pandemics.

Stickman, however, dismissed Washington, Greene, Fayette and Butler counties, all of whom have majority-Republican boards, as plaintiffs in the suit.

Irey Vaughan on Tuesday reiterated that Washington County incurred no legal bill for its participation.

As the case moves on to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, “We will remain a resource and supporter for the challenges,” Irey Vaughan messaged in response to an inquiry.

Greene County Commission Chairman Mike Belding said the counties’ interest lay in a “stable economy and the ability of our businesses to survive during a strenuous time when people are not out and about because of the forced closure and stay-at-home orders from the governor.”

Instead of “crushing these businesses,” the Greene commissioners “hoped to offer them the best opportunity of survival and aid entrepreneurs who were interested in starting businesses while protecting our constitutional and individual rights to make choices for ourselves.”

Belding said he saw a difference in making choices in a healthy way, adopting all federal Centers for Disease Control standards such as wearing masks, but that state government put in place more restrictions than the federal health mandates.

He also saw disparities in mandatory closures for non-life sustaining businesses and those that were permitted to remain open, giving the example of the Skyview Drive-in theater in Carmichaels, which includes a pizzeria that had to close while a nearby eatery was permitted to remain open. A Waynesburg hair salon, Classy Cuts, also found itself on the winning side of the federal suit after its owner testified applying for a waiver from the state was an exercise in futility.

“Going forward, we knew the counties would prevent egregious overstepping of constitutional law in the future,” Belding said.


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COVID-19 cases increase by 22 in Washington County

Washington County added 22 new cases of the novel coronavirus, taking its total number Tuesday to 1,232 since the pandemic officially arrived in Pennsylvania in March.

Greene County added one new case of the virus to its total that stood Tuesday at 160, according to the state Health Department.

“We know that congregation, especially in college and university settings, yields increased case counts, state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in her daily update on the virus. “The mitigation efforts in place now are essential to flattening the curve and saving lives.”

Pennsylvania’s daily count jumped by 1,151 new cases Tuesday, taking the total to 146,214.

The statewide death toll increased to 7,875 after six new deaths were reported that day.

There were no new deaths announced from the virus in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties. Fayette added three new cases to its total of 750.


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Washington County commissioners launch CARES Act grant program

The Washington County commissioners announced Tuesday that they will allocate up to $7.5 million in grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations that have been squeezed by the economic consequences of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The grants will come from the county’s $18.6 million Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act federal funding.

The program formed under the CARES Act will be called the Washington County Small Business and Non-Profit Relief Grant, and the maximum amount allotted will be $25,000.

Earlier this month, the board entered into a $35,000 agreement with Zelenkofske Axelrod LLC to serve as administrative grant consultant evaluating applications.

“Businesses in our local economy are experiencing enormous strain due to forced shutdowns and operating at 25% capacity,” said commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan.

“We’ve reached a defining moment for our county’s businesses, that if we do not act, many of them will be closed for good. That’s why it’s so important that we can deliver a grant program and direct needed capital to businesses until they’re again sustainable.”

There will be two installments of grants, with each installment drawing on $3.5 million.

The grant program will be open to any Washington County business with 100 full-time employees or fewer. The businesses, in operation no later than Dec. 30, 2018, must operate and be headquartered in the county.

“Initial preference will be given to those business and organizations that did not receive any other additional government support such as through the federal Paycheck Protection Program or the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program,” said commission Vice Chairman Larry Maggi.

The application period, which opened Tuesday, has a deadline of 4:30 p.m. Sept. 28. The county plans to list awards on its website about mid-October.

“I’ve been very concerned about the economic impact COVID-19 has had on small businesses,” said Commissioner Nick Sherman.

“Many of our downtowns were struggling before the pandemic, and my fear is that they will never recover. I’m talking about businesses in our most vulnerable communities, the Mon Valley, the city of Washington and Canonsburg. We need to make sure all our businesses in the county receive capital.”

Applications, instructions and answers to frequently asked questions will be available at the commissioners’ office, Suite 704, in the Courthouse Square building, or on the county’s website, https://www.co.washington.pa.us.


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Study finds family members most likely to financially exploit older Pennsylvanians

We’ve all heard the stories about older adults who get their bank accounts cleaned out when they get random phone calls from strangers about a lottery windfall or a grandchild who needs cash fast for bail.

But the reality is that older adults who are financially exploited end up being taken advantage of by those who are nearest and dearest to them – children or grandchildren or friends.

That was one of the findings of a study on the financial exploitation of older adults released Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging. It found that 65% of the perpetrators were family members, including adult children, grandchildren and spouses. Only 15% of the perpetrators could be classified as “other,” with remaining categories being taken up by caregivers and friends.

Older adults are “most likely to be exploited by those they love and trust the most,” according to Robert Torres, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Aging. In an online news conference, Torres added that the financial exploitation of older adults is an underreported crime, with only 1 in 10 to 1 in 44 cases being brought to the attention of officials in law enforcement.

The average financial loss per victim is about $40,000, and totaled about $58 million across Pennsylvania in the 2017-18 fiscal year. Along with damaging the well-being of the victims, some of the older adults ended up having to turn to Medicaid for health coverage or they had to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“No older adult should have to live with a diminished quality of life because they’ve been taken advantage of,” Torres said.

The report also found that most of the victims were female, lived in urban communities, were widowed and lived alone. The average age was 79. Unauthorized bank withdrawals constituted the largest percentage of total loss, followed by scams.

Torres and the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf back legislation that would update the Older Adults Protective Services Act (OAPSA). It would, among other things, expand the number of mandatory reporters, create an intra-agency financial exploitation team and increase prevention education. The state Senate approved a measure that would enact these changes, and a similar measure is pending in the House of Representatives. If the House does not approve the legislation by December, lawmakers will have to start over from scratch, Torres said.

“Our older adults deserve to age with dignity and respect,” Torres said. “The results of this study are eye-opening and alarming.”