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Fewer fireworks for the 4th

It could be a quiet Fourth of July this year, as fireworks displays across the region have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not long after Pittsburgh canceled its show, Canonsburg canceled its Fourth of July parade and fireworks. Washington’s fireworks are also canceled this year.

“A lot of skies will be dark in a lot of municipalities,” said Stephen Vitale, CEO of Pyrotecnico, a fireworks company based in New Castle.

His company does fireworks shows around the world, but so far this year, Vitale said, they’ve seen a 70% cancellation rate, which is on par for the entire industry.

“This pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the fireworks industry,” Vitale said, noting that the majority of their season happens from Memorial Day to Labor Day. “A lot of communities are looking for other dates to do these celebrations. People need what we do. They are going to want a reason to celebrate.”

The company’s marketing brand manager, Geoffrey Abraham, said that while their numbers are down, the company is looking into creative ways for municipalities to still have shows, like at drive-in theaters.

“Fireworks are something we can do in a socially distant, safe way, too,” he said. “We’re working with drive-ins across the country about what we could do. Who would have thought we’d be talking about drive-in theaters in 2020? We want people to enjoy fireworks one way or another.”

Abraham said the company wants people to adhere to Centers for Disease Control guidelines on social distancing while still able to celebrate the Fourth with traditional fireworks. A Fourth without fireworks would be a “sad and unfortunate thing,” he said.

“We’re all looking for things to celebrate right now,” he said. “There a very few holidays that we feel as passionate about as fireworks on the Fourth of July. We’re going to think of ways to make these shows still happen.”

Canonsburg residents are certainly passionate about celebrating the holiday, with the largest July 4 parade in the state.

Even though the parade and fireworks were canceled, Mayor Dave Rhome advised residents should leave the launching of fireworks to the professionals. He’s worried that without these regional shows, folks inexperienced with fireworks will try to have their own backyard show, resulting in hazards or injury.

“We’ve already anticipated that’s going to happen,” Rhome said. “We see so many accidents year in and year out of people getting burned or losing eyes or fingers. The safety is what we have to stress – these things are dangerous.”

Rhome said launching fireworks is illegal within the borough limits. He said the borough may consider having additional police officers on patrol during the holiday.

Washington’s fireworks display was canceled, too, according to the city’s reopening plan that was approved by City Council earlier this month.

“People are going to have their own celebrations in their backyards,” said Washington fire Chief Gerald Coleman.

He said residents need to be reminded which fireworks are legal and which are not in Pennsylvania. He also said people should be careful, especially in communities with houses that are close together.

“The last thing you want to do is burn the roof off your neighbor’s house because you wanted to make the Fourth of July special,” he said.

City police Chief Robert Wilson said his department usually has additional patrols out for the holiday.

Phantom Fireworks, headquartered in Youngstown, Ohio, deals with consumer fireworks across the nation, in its retail stores and seasonal tent sales. With many municipal shows being canceled, the company is anticipating a “higher demand,” according to the director of government affairs, Dan Peart.

Phantom implemented online ordering capabilities to ensure it will be able to keep up with that demand, he said.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while, and this pandemic has accelerated our rollout of that platform,” Peart said. “We want to make sure we’re able to provide every possible outlet for people.”

He said as its stores are allowed to open in less restrictive states, the company already is getting customers and selling gift cards. Stores are located in Greensburg and Monroeville.

“People are noticing the same thing about their municipal shows getting canceled,” Peart said.

As people stock up on Phantom’s products, he said customers also receive education and safety tips on how to use them. He said the company has a safety tab on its website along with a YouTube channel that has videos on how to use each of its products, “what to expect and the best practices and safety guides.”

“We’re confident that people are educated in what they’re buying and how to use it,” he said.


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Prosperity couple has opened home to foster children for 34 years

Pegg Smith, the youngest of four children and the mother of two sons, always wanted a lot of children.

“I grew up watching ‘The Waltons’ and wanted a big family,” said Smith, laughing.

So in 1986, after an ad in the newspaper about the desperate need for foster parents caught her eye, Smith and her husband, Doug, decided to open their hearts and their home in Prosperity to foster children.

Thirty-four years later, that home, situated on 158 acres, is still a temporary safe haven for children.

The couple has fostered 48 youngsters during that time.

Right now, the Smiths are caring for three boys, including John, 17, and Drake, 18, for whom they have guardianship, and another 17-year-old who they have fostered since April 17.

Foster families provide temporary care for children who cannot stay in their homes due to serious family issues, including drug or alcohol addiction, abuse or neglect.

“The kids come to us with a lot of issues going on in their lives, and we work through them,” said Smith, 62. “My philosophy is just to be there and listen, and don’t make a judgment call.”

The Smiths have had children of all ages in their home. But they are especially passionate about fostering older children, who often have trouble finding placement.

“That’s the age group they’re the most passionate about and committed to,” said Rachel Duvall, program director at Pressley Ridge, a Pittsburgh-based organization that offers foster care and adoption services. “Pegg’s warmth, friendliness and openness, and her ability to engage kids in conversation and build relationships is huge. That’s the foundation of it all. Without relationships we can’t form trust, and without trust we can’t change lives. That really has been the key for them to have such a positive impact on so many kids, that ability to form trusting, therapeutic relationships.”

Smith said her goal with older foster children is to help them graduate from high school and prepare a plan for the future.

For years, she happily drove foster children to college campus visits in an old Chevrolet Suburban that ended up with 300,000 miles on it.

The Smiths have kept in touch with many of their foster children over the years.

Smith gets a phone call every holiday from a former foster child who she accompanied in the delivery room when the girl delivered a baby in 1996. Her foster child went on to earn a degree in culinary art, Smith said proudly.

Some children stayed for six months, others for years. The longest stay was a boy who moved in with them when he was 5 and remained until he was 19.

The Smiths aim to provide a stable and nurturing environment, so the kids have chores to complete, and they are given an allowance.

Over the years, they’ve packed kids (and their five Jack Russell terriers) into the car and spent weekends at their campsite and vacationed at Doug’s parents’ home in Massachusetts, where they would take the kids whale watching and sailing, and tour sites like the Salem Witch Museum.

The couple also care for their foster kids’ day-to-day needs, handle any emotional and behavioral issues, and work with the birth parents.

“You form a connection with the families, too. A lot of times the biological families have drug and alcohol issues, you kind of have to be there for the families, too. We’ve been there to help them get straightened out,” said Smith.

The ultimate goal of foster care is to reunite foster children with their birth family, to be placed with a relative or guardian, to be adopted, or to live independently, so the Smiths know letting them go is a part of the deal.

It’s not always easy, though.

The Smiths are preparing themselves for a bittersweet occasion on June 5, when John graduates from McGuffey High School and leaves for basic training in the U.S. Marine Corps. They have fostered John since he was 11, and watched him grow up.

“He has grown by leaps and bounds. He was so quiet and very guarded,” said Smith. “I remember when he came here he said, ‘I don’t want to be adopted.’”

A year later, John said he wanted to continue to live there and asked the Smiths to pursue guardianship, so they did.

John, who enjoys shooting rifles, riding dirt bikes and caring for his Norwegian elkhound, Daisy Duke, still remains in touch with his sister and extended family.

“I was almost in tears at the recruiter’s office,” said Smith. “But I’ve loved watching him grow into the young man he is today.”

The Smiths never imagined they would be foster parents during a global pandemic, but they welcomed their most recent foster child last month. They first met the teen on March 11, as shelter-in-place orders were starting to be implemented, and talked with him daily until he moved in.

Duvall said there is a critical need for foster parents, and COVID-19 has impacted Pressley Ridge’s ability to recruit and train them. The ongoing health crisis also is isolating children from their biological families and services.

“You have kids who haven’t seen their biological parents for nearly two months,” Duvall said.

Child advocates worry, too, that the pandemic will increase child abuse among children not yet in the system, and they say it is heightening the risk of homelessness and joblessness for young adults who are close to aging out of foster care.

Smith said fostering has been a rewarding experience.

“Fostering is my calling, to show these kiddos a different way of life and help them be successful,” said Smith. “It’s in my blood, to help get them through the tough times in their life.”

If you or anyone you know is interested in becoming a foster parent, please contact Pressley Ridge at 724-562-0571 or 877-703-KIDS.


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Gov. Wolf preparing to give green light to counties during COVID-19 pandemic

Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday he is considering moving some Pennsylvania counties into his COVID-19 green phase, which would give them permission to reopen as normal.

Wolf didn’t specify which counties he might move from the yellow caution phase to green.

“There might even be counties moving from yellow to green,” Wolf said during a Thursday afternoon teleconference with reporters.

He is supposed to make the announcement today when other counties that are in red zones might be moved to yellow under his color-coded reopening plan.

Wolf also said he will in early June extend his disaster declaration for another 90 days, giving him the power to order the closure of schools and nonessential businesses and require people to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus.

“I will renew it. That’s my intention,” he said.

The virus since early March has killed 4,871 people after another 102 deaths were announced Thursday. And the number of positive cases of the novel coronavirus continued to rise statewide that day.

There were 980 new positive cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 65,392 in all 67 counties in the state, state Health Secretary Rachel Levine said.

“We must continue to protect our most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, which includes our seniors, those with underlying health issues, our health-care workers and our first responders,” Levine said.

Washington and Greene counties, which moved into the yellow phase a week ago, have seen their positive cases level off in recent days at 130 and 27, respectively. Allegheny County’s death toll increased by one to 148.

In another move Thursday, Wolf said he signed a bill allowing hotel and restaurant bars to sell cocktails to go to help them increase their profits, effective immediately.

The drinks must be sold in containers with secure lids in quantities between four and 64 ounces, limiting sales to 11 p.m.

Wolf said a day earlier that he didn’t necessarily think it was a good idea, but that he would sign the bill because it had overwhelming support in the Legislature.

He also said he would disapprove any measure in Harrisburg to strip his authority to declare disasters.


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Cal U hit with class action lawsuit over decision to close campus

California University of Pennsylvania has been hit with a class-action lawsuit alleging it cheated students out of the full value of their tuition when the campus was closed in March because of the coronavirus and switched to online distance learning.

The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, is asking that students be given pro-rated refunds for tuition for the spring semester. The suit argues that the online courses students took at Cal. U starting March 30 were “subpar in practically every aspect” compared to in-person instruction.

It also alleges that “previously recorded lectures were posted online for students to view on their own. Other courses involved professors simply posting notes online for students to review,” and there was “a lack of classroom interaction among teachers and students and among students that is instrumental in interpersonal skill development.”

In the 2019-20 school year, there more than 4,000 undergraduate students enrolled at Cal. U and almost 2,000 graduate students.

Ashleigh Coffman, a marketing major from Greensburg who just graduated from Cal. U, is the lead plaintiff in the suit. Coffman explained that she believed it was unfair that the university should keep her tuition money, and that of her fellow students, when the campus was closed. All 14 of the universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education closed in March to help combat the spread of the coronavirus, as did other campuses in the commonwealth and around the country.

“I worked two jobs to help pay for tuition,” Coffman said.

Coffman commuted to campus, so she will be ineligible for the partial refunds of costs related to housing and food that the State System has pledged to give students. The State System will reportedly lose $70 million to $100 million as a result of the refunds.

Christine Kindl, Cal. U’s associate vice president for communications and public relations, declined to comment on the suit. Gary Lynch, the Pittsburgh attorney who filed the suit, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Coffman said Lynch would be filing a similar suit against the University of Pittsburgh.

The suit against Cal. U is one of many that have been filed against colleges and universities across the country by students who say they have been shortchanged by classes having to go online. Such prestigious schools as Brown, Vanderbilt, Cornell and Purdue have been on the receiving end of suits, and officials at some of the schools have countered that students continued to be educated by skilled faculty online, and various forms of academic support have been available.