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By Christen Smith | The Center Square

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered non-life-sustaining businesses to close their doors by 8 p.m. Thursday lest they face serious consequences, from losing their state licenses to forfeiting disaster aid to risking criminal prosecution.

“I had hoped for voluntary compliance so our public safety officials could focus on assisting with the crisis,” Wolf said in a video statement late Thursday afternoon. “Unfortunately we have not seen full compliance. We have no time to lose.”

The order comes just 48 hours after Wolf recommended nonessential businesses – including hair salons, movie theaters, gyms and retailers – shut down for two weeks to mitigate strain on the health care system anticipated from an onslaught of cases.

The Department of Health reported a 39 percent increase in confirmed cases Thursday, with 185 residents across the state testing positive for COVID-19. Growing clusters in Allegheny, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties – the latter of which saw an outbreak among 20 health care workers alone – suggests community transmission of the virus has begun.

“Business participation in our mitigation strategies is essential,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine told reporters Thursday. “We are keenly aware of the economic impact of this epidemic, but the human toll will be far worse.”

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The department asked hospitals to cancel elective surgeries and keep as many beds as possible open for COVID-19 patients. She said state regulations that prevent a hospital from adding beds without permission has also been relaxed in an effort to accommodate the growing caseload.

“We have a real chance at slowing the spread of this virus if we all just stay home and limit our exposure to one another,” Levine said. “Now is the time for these actions.”

Wolf’s order said enforcement action on non-compliant businesses will begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The order targets contractors, attorneys offices, clothing and furniture stores, among 150 others.

Grocery stores, gas stations, medical facilities and mass transit will stay open. Restaurants and bars offering takeout, drive-through and delivery services can also continue operations.

Businesses that ignore the order “will forfeit their ability to receive any applicable disaster relief and/or may be subject to other appropriate administrative action.” Such actions include termination of state loan or grant funding, including Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project (RACP) grant funding and/or suspension or revocation of licensure for violation of the law.

“In addition to any other criminal charges that might be applicable, the Department of Health is authorized to prosecute noncompliant entities for the failure to comply with health laws, including quarantine, isolation or other disease control measures. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment,” the administration said in a news release.

“To protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians, we need to take more aggressive mitigation actions,” Wolf said. “This virus is an invisible danger that could be present everywhere. We need to act with the strength we use against any other severe threat. And, we need to act now before the illness spreads more widely.”

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