The first sign that something was different were the white-and-blue signs on every other seat in Council chambers. “By Request of the Dept. of Public Health, PLEASE DO NOT SIT IN THIS CHAIR. Social distancing is to reduce exposure to COVID-19 Coronavirus.”
After weeks of behind-the-scenes conversations as a deadly virus made its way across the globe to the United States, Pennsylvania and finally Philadelphia, dealing with coronavirus burst into full public view across the city this week.
First, Mayor Kenney and the city’s Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, held a briefing to disclose Philadelphia’s first confirmed case of a coronavirus patient. That was Tuesday. Dr. Farley said his department was investigating a handful of other city cases for possible inflection with the virus.
In two subsequent days, the scale of the coronavirus crisis exploded dramatically, around the world, country and region. By Thursday, more than 1,270 people had tested positive for the virus in the United States, and 38 had died. In Pennsylvania, 16 patients have tested positive for the virus – nine of them are from Montgomery County. Two cases are in Bucks County, and one is in Delaware County.
At a briefing late yesterday in a crowded emergency management command center at 3rd and Spring Garden Streets, the health commissioner said Philadelphia still had one confirmed coronavirus patient, but now 45 other cases were “under investigation.”
Dr. William Hite, Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia was there, along with Joyce Wilkerson, President of the School Board. When Dr. Hite was asked whether he had plans to close city schools, he initially demurred, saying, “Our students have many needs that are met in our schools. Food, shelter, safety and education. We have to take all those needs into account.”
The questions about closing city schools had a sense of urgency. Earlier in the day, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered that all schools in Montgomery County be closed for at least two weeks. With more than half of the state’s coronavirus cases found there, Gov. Wolf called Montgomery County “the epicenter of the epidemic at this point.”
By nightfall, things had dramatically changed regarding city schools. Superintendent Hite announced 63 city schools would be closed today due to staffing shortages – fueled by teachers and other District personnel who live in Montgomery County, where the Governor and county officials have also urged county residents to restrict non-essential travel. The coronavirus was exposing the interconnectedness of Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs.
Throughout the day, major announcements about coronavirus reverberated. Pro sports leagues – the NBA, the NHL, and Major League Baseball – cancelled or postponed their seasons. Major universities – Penn, Temple, and others – directed their students to pack up and go home for spring break, and prepare to resume classes via online learning. The Philadelphia Orchestra cancelled concerts. Pennsylvania’s Catholic Church told its faithful they are not required to attend Mass – until further notice.
All walks of life are being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. That was the scene City Council confronted as it convened Thursday for its 9th Meeting of 2020. Things looked differently, and Council President Clarke announced why from the podium as the session got underway.
@PHLCouncil President @Darrell_Clarke announced a series of proactive steps intended to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus, while still permitting Council to conduct its session and the public to participate in it. https://t.co/fk5O8gyEEO pic.twitter.com/x12Rk9UUpd
— PHLCouncil (@PHLCouncil) March 12, 2020
“You will notice we have blocked off every other chair in the chamber,” Clarke said. “This is social distancing, and it’s intended to reduce any possible exposure to coronavirus. No one is permitted to stand along the walls of the chamber – for the same public health reason.”
“If you feel ill or feverish and have a dry cough, we encourage you to leave the chamber now,” Clarke said. “This is for your safety and others’ safety as well.”
There were other measures. Speakers during the public comment portion of Council had to stand three feet away from the microphone, a recommendation by public health experts. Council members were requested to bring only one staffer to the session. Council’s caucus – the Thursday morning ritual where lobbyists, journalists and others schmooze and engage Council members and staff – was moved from the smaller caucus room to Council’s larger main chamber. The ritual and buzz were absent; perhaps it was all a little bit safer.
The press seemed on edge, sensing things were different. When a reporter asked during the post-Council scrum – in which social distancing rules were in place – “Why didn’t Council do more today to deal with the coronavirus?” – Clarke patiently noted that Council actually had acted substantively, introducing an $85 million budget transfer ordinance at Mayor Kenney’s request – funds the Managing Director’s Office needs to fight and contain the coronavirus. “I think that’s fairly substantive,” Clarke said.
Other Councilmembers Take Action on the Coronavirus’ Impact
On the floor, two other Councilmembers stepped up to address the virus’ impact on Philadelphians. At Large Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks introduced resolutions urging the city to develop plans to help some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens deal with the impact of coronavirus on their daily lives.
Councilmember Brooks’ resolution calls on the City to develop an action plan to support and protect service and healthcare workers from the potentially devastating impacts of a coronavirus pandemic.
“Nannies, house cleaners, food service employees, healthcare professionals, janitorial staff, and others are already feeling the impact of this public health crisis,” said Councilmember Brooks. “Not only are service and healthcare workers at a high-risk of contracting the virus because their work requires regular contact with the public, but many can’t afford to have their hours cut or stay home when they are ill. They can’t just work from home.”
Brooks’ resolution calls on the city to develop a plan that will include continuity of health and paid time off benefits for employees, earmarking funds for emergency cash grants, extending paid sick day laws, and clarification from the Mayor’s Office of Labor on the rights of workers and enforcement of complaints.
Today I stand with domestic workers, food service employees, healthcare professionals, and Philadelphians for whom missing a day’s pay means not being able to feed your family. For people in positions where staying home sick means losing your job. I see you; I’m fighting for you.
— Councilmember Kendra Brooks (@KendraPHL) March 12, 2020
Councilmember Gym’s resolution calls for agencies to protect residents at risk of eviction or foreclosure or at risk of having utilities cut off in the event of sudden income loss as a result of work stoppages, illness, or possible quarantine. It calls on the Sheriff’s Office, the courts, and utility companies to consider temporary moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, tax liens and utility shut-offs.
“In a public health emergency, we are only as healthy as those most vulnerable, least economically secure, and least covered by our social services,” said Councilmember Gym. “We must do all we can to keep people secure enough to take care of themselves and endure a quarantine or treatment if required.”
Other Action in Council This Week …
Discrimination on the Basis of Hair. Council Majority Leader Cherelle Parker (9th District) introduced legislation that would amend the city’s anti-discrimination law to include discrimination against any individual based upon their hair texture or hairstyle.
Parker’s legislation would amend the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, to clarify that unlawful discrimination on the basis of race includes discrimination based on characteristics commonly associated with race, such as hair texture and hairstyles.
The legislation would ban hair discrimination in housing, employment, school, competitive sports, and beyond. Philadelphia would become the first city in Pennsylvania to adopt such a law, and join a growing list of jurisdictions that have outlawed hair discrimination, including New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland.
“Hair discrimination is a reality for too many black women and men,” Parker said in a floor speech. “As a black woman, I personally understand how we have been forced to conform to mainstream standards of beauty for decades. It’s about more than just hair; it’s about our culture. It’s accepting who we are and loving who we are, and no one should face discrimination because they are comfortable in their own skin and choose to identify with their culture.”
As Parker spoke, her three new colleagues on Council – Councilmembers Brooks, Jamie Gauthier (3rd District) and Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At Large), nodded their heads vigorously and smiled approvingly at her words.
Safe Injection Sites: Should Communities Have a Say? It seems like a month ago, but it was just Tuesday when a spirited Council committee hearing took place on legislation offered by Councilmember David Oh (At Large) that if passed, would make it nearly impossible for a “safe injections site” to receive approval to open in Philadelphia.
In a Public Health and Human Services hearing chaired by Councilmember Cindy Bass (8th District), Oh’s legislation – requiring approval of 80 percent of nearby homeowners before a safe injection site could be opened – prompted fierce debate on both sides.
Advocates for safe injection sites testified to their potential to save the lives of persons addicted to injecting narcotics. Other witnesses testified against the idea of any safe injection site opening in Philadelphia.
This latest twist on this contentious public health issue flared after a non-profit group, Safe House, attempted to open a safe injection site in South Philadelphia without consulting the neighborhood, triggering a firestorm of community and political opposition, led by Councilmembers Mark Squilla (1st District) and Kenyatta Johnson (2nd District).
Oh’s legislation passed out of committee, and now goes to Council for a vote on final passage next week. It would appear to be on a collision course with Mayor Kenney, who supports safe injection sites as a tool in the city’s response to the overwhelming opioid epidemic. Kenney reiterated his support for the sites in his annual budget address in Council last week.
Inside the Rail …
The WR has previously noted that many issue briefings take place in Council, as members educate themselves and staff on a wide array of issues. This past week, Council was briefed by the District Attorney’s Office, and D.A. Larry Krasner, on a criminal justice system innovation that Krasner is implementing and which Council has supported through the budget process.
The DA’s Office’s Public Data Dashboard (data.philadao.com) is designed to gather data on crimes in different categories, from homicides to property crimes to assaults and others, and then to follow the data and cases through the criminal justice system to see how justice is meted out.
Transparency & accountability make for better, more effective government. Thank you @Mr4thDistrict @PHLCouncil for hosting a briefing on how the @philadao #DATAlab Dashboard can be used to inform strategies to improve public safety. pic.twitter.com/ImQDKRXtqr
— DA Larry Krasner (@DA_LarryKrasner) March 11, 2020
The DA’s Data Dashboard can be an important tool as the DA’s Office determines how best to prosecute various kinds of crimes, how to interact with communities to prevent crimes, and how to explain to stakeholders like district Council members and others what is actually happening in their neighborhoods.
The next Stated Meeting of City Council is scheduled to take place on Thursday, March 19th, at 10 a.m. in Council’s chamber on the 4th floor at City Hall.