May. 07, 2020 / Weekly Roundup

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The Weekly Roundup
#Listrak\DateStampLong#  The latest news from the State Capitol
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Moving PA Toward Reopening Safely

Continuing our commitment to address both current COVID-19 challenges and plans for moving the Commonwealth forward, the House was back in session in Harrisburg this week debating and advancing several bills to address our response to the pandemic.

Recognizing that testing is key for communities to be able to move forward after COVID-19, the House overwhelmingly approved House Bill 2455 to require the governor to review statewide COVID-19 testing capacity, and issue a plan to test Pennsylvania’s first responders, health care workers and other vulnerable populations as well as to use tests to ease current mitigation requirements that have been imposed by the government. Additionally, the governor must provide regular reports on testing efforts, including the number of tests needed, costs associated and exactly what testing resources are available. The bill also would empower county and local health departments to implement testing.

The House also recognized the significant impact the virus and subsequent mitigation efforts are having on citizens’ mental health by adopting two bills to better ensure access to care. House Bill 1439 would require a certification of compliance by an insurer with federal and state law ensuring mental health coverage is equal to medical or surgical benefits, while House Bill 1696 would require insurers to file an annual report with the Insurance Department detailing mental health parity compliance.

In response to the challenges elected officials, news reporters and members of the general public have had in getting answers from the governor and his administration about their COVID-19 response, we passed House Bill 2463 to require state agencies to answer questions and respond to right-to-know requests during emergency declarations.

Finally, the House approved legislation that would prevent economic impact checks being distributed by the federal government from being subject to state or local income taxes.

Additionally, we continued our efforts aimed at safely reopening businesses this week. While the governor has wanted to only open life-sustaining businesses, the criteria for identifying such businesses has not been explained and it also doesn’t take into account the many, many industries that could easily adapt to state and federal guidelines to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Bills to open hair salons and barbershops, animal groomers, real estate (Pennsylvania is reportedly the only state in the nation restricting the industry), messenger services, nonprofit zoos and more are in various stages of the legislative process. Giving business owners the option of reopening when they can do so safely will help restart our economy and get people back to work, easing the extreme backlog of approximately 1.7 million unemployment claims. 
 
 
What’s Your Plan for Education?

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera recently stated he was uncertain if the state’s schools would reopen this fall. While parents at home with their kids are doing their best to support their child’s studies, students are still missing out on a variety of educational and social opportunities. Despite the best efforts of teachers, many school districts were ill-prepared to switch fully to online learning.

Secretary Rivera and the Wolf administration owe parents more information. What is the department doing to make sure our children get the education they need and deserve? What is the plan to eventually reopen schools? Parents deserve answers, and they deserve a plan to ensure the very best education for their children.
 
 
Governor Moves Portion of State to ‘Yellow’ May 8

Last Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced 24 counties in the northcentral and northwestern parts of the state would be able to start loosening some restrictions and reopening their local economies effective on Friday, May 8. While I am disappointed Carbon County was not included in this first phase, it is still encouraging to see some progress after nearly two months of waiting. I am hopeful the governor will reevaluate our local numbers in the coming days and we will transition to the next phase, allowing businesses to safely reopen under federal guidelines.

As outlined by the governor, the phased reopening plan is structured like a stop light. For the last several weeks, the entire Commonwealth has been in the “red phase” with stay-at-home orders and all but life-sustaining businesses closed. Last week, the governor announced the two dozen counties that would be first to move into the “yellow phase.” He indicated the counties were deemed ready to move because of low per-capita case counts, the ability to conduct contact tracing and testing, and appropriate population density to contain community spread.

Ultimately, the goal for each region is to reach the “green phase,” which eases most restrictions by lifting the stay-at-home and business closure orders to allow the economy to strategically reopen while continuing to prioritize public health. At each stage, data will be analyzed to detect any new spike in cases. Residents are encouraged to continue practicing social distancing, frequent cleaning and hand washing, and wearing masks. Details of the governor’s plan are available here



 
 
L&I Finally Ready for Self-employed, Others to File for Backdated PUA Assistance Benefits

The state Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) announced Thursday that eligible self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers and others not normally eligible for regular unemployment compensation (UC) could begin filing backdated claims in the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) website.

Individuals can file backdated claims for previous eligible weeks and the first payment will arrive within one week or less. Starting Sunday, PUA claimants can file their weekly certification and payment will arrive within three business days.

According to L&I officials, they opted to roll out the system in two phases to collect as many applications ahead of time as possible so that payments could be made quickly after the website's completion. To date, more than 174,000 new PUA claims have been filed.

Please click here for additional important information about the new PUA system and the process to file for previous weeks of unemployment and weekly certifications moving forward, and more.  
   
 
Support for Schools



The federal CARES Act, approved by Congress in March, includes funding relief for school districts across the country. The state’s share of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) totals more than $500 million and will be distributed to school districts based on the same formula used to distribute Every Student Succeeds Act funding last summer. The House Appropriations Committee estimates school districts serving the 110th Legislative District will receive the following amounts:
  •   Jim Thorpe Area – $395,218
  •   Lehighton Area – $474,000
  •   Palmerton Area – $266,279
  •   Panther Valley – $546,215
  •   Weatherly Area – $140,764
  
 
 
What’s New?

Homeowners and renters have new protections from foreclosures and evictions through July 10 under an executive order issued by the governor on Thursday. The action builds on a Pennsylvania Supreme Court order which closed court eviction proceedings until May 11 and ensures no renter or homeowner will be removed from their home for 60 more days. In almost all circumstances, renters and homeowners are required to continue making monthly payments during this time. If you are struggling to make your monthly payments, contact your landlord or mortgage servicer immediately. More information about the governor’s order is available here.

Expiration dates for driver licenses, identification cards and learner’s permits are being extended again due to the statewide COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Any of these items that are scheduled to expire between March 16 and May 31, 2020, are now extended through June 30, 2020. You may, however, renew your driver license or identification online anytime at www.dmv.pa.gov. Driver License Centers, Photo License Centers and the Harrisburg Riverfront Office Center remain closed until further notice. For more information about PennDOT actions related to COVID-19, click here.  

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has outlined its plans for a phased reopening of some state park and forest facilities. Public golf courses at Caledonia and Evansburg state parks and Michaux State Forest, which are operated by private concessions, reopened last Friday, May 1. At least one restroom in day use areas and in marinas at state parks and forests statewide will be open to the public on May 8 with additional cleaning protocols in place. (I have contacted DCNR to question its one restroom policy, which I believe creates a public health hazard.) All nine marinas in state parks will be open to the public on May 8, or their typical designated opening date. This is in addition to shoreline mooring sites at all state parks. State park and forest facilities in counties entering the “yellow phase” of mitigation will be open to the public on May 15. This includes offices, campgrounds and the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle. Cabins in these areas will not open until June 12, to allow returning staff the ability to thoroughly clean them and prepare them for use. Campgrounds and cabins in all other state parks will remain closed. For more details on the phased opening plan,  click here.  

A program to provide free N95 respirator decontamination to health care facilities, first responders and other eligible organizations that may be experiencing a shortage of the respirators is now available. The Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System (CCDS) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the decontamination and reuse of N95 respirators as needed during a time of crisis. The system uses a vaporous hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate the units. A single Battelle CCDS site can decontaminate tens of thousands of N95s in a single day. The decontamination process permits the reuse of N95s, and each N95 can be decontaminated up to 20 times before it requires disposal. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is funding the operation of multiple Battelle CCDS sites across the country, including one in Delaware County. For more information about eligibility and how to participate, click here.  

Federal approval has been granted for the state to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to students who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals at school through the National School Lunch Program. Under the temporary Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, the state Department of Human Services will issue benefits through EBT cards provided to qualifying families. A family’s benefit will be determined based on the federal reimbursement rate for the daily rate of free school breakfasts and lunches, or approximately $5.70 per child. This benefit will be calculated for the remainder of the school year, leading to an approximate benefit of $370.50 per child if they were receiving free or reduced-price school meals when school closures began. Benefits will begin to be issued to qualifying families within approximately 15 business days. If a family’s economic situation has changed since school closures began, they can still apply for the National School Lunch Program and, if determined eligible, receive P-EBT benefits. Families can apply online at www.compass.state.pa.us.

Click here for more information.  
 
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