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From left to right: Val Arkoosh, Montgomery County Commissioners Chair. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat from Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. From left to right: Val Arkoosh, Montgomery County Commissioners Chair. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat from Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

From left to right: Val Arkoosh, Montgomery County Commissioners Chair. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat from Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

By Jessica Calefati March 25, 2020

The Inquirer is partnering with PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking website operated by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The Inquirer will be PolitiFact’s exclusive partner in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state in the 2020 presidential election. Through the work of an Inquirer reporter dedicated to this effort, and collaborating with other reporters and editors from both The Inquirer and PolitiFact, we will assess the accuracy of statements by elected officials, political candidates, and other public figures. This work is more important now than ever.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, it had become increasingly tough for Pennsylvanians to determine what is true and what’s not.

But now, promoting facts and knocking down falsehoods is more important than ever. The truth will help voters elect the next president, and it will help save lives as we confront the growing threat posed by this virus.

My name is Jessica Calefati, and I’m your new PolitiFact Pennsylvania reporter.

In the months ahead, I’ll be fact-checking statements by the presidential candidates, claims from politicians throughout Pennsylvania, and reports about the coronavirus.

Hear a politician say something that sounds fishy? Flag it for me. See a viral post on social media that seems false? Send it my way. You can reach me at [email protected].

Speaking at a news conference Sunday, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said it best:

"Don’t believe everything that you see on the internet or every advertisement."

But be certain you can believe in The Inquirer.

To get us started, here are some coronavirus claims made by Pennsylvania officials in recent weeks.

Escaping arrest?

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw affirmed her department’s commitment to fighting crime last week after a significant change in policy driven by the coronavirus.

"The department is not turning a blind eye to crime," Outlaw said at a news conference. "No one will escape accountability for the crimes that they commit."

Why would the top cop in a city with shootings on the rise need to publicly vow to tackle crime? Because the virus has fundamentally changed the way Philadelphia’s criminal justice system functions — at least for the time being.

First, the courts announced plans to close until April 1. Then Outlaw told her commanders to stop making arrests for nonviolent crimes including drug offenses, theft, and prostitution, among others, according to an internal memo.

The move protects police officers from interacting with nonviolent offenders who may be infected with the coronavirus, and given the court closures, it prevents nonviolent offenders from contracting and spreading the virus in jail while waiting for their day in court.

Similarly, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday ordered county jails to release individuals serving time for low-level offenses.

Still, when news about Philadelphia’s policy shift started ricocheting around the Internet, it sounded too crazy to be true. But in fact, it is.

And Outlaw’s promise not to let any criminals escape accountability for their crimes is largely accurate, too.

That accountability will come in the form of fingerprinting at the scene and arrest warrants that police say they will file once the spread of the virus slows and courts reopen. Will cops be able to find the offenders they fingerprinted once the spread of the virus slows? We’ll have to wait and see.

Guns and tests

Earlier this month, as confusion over screening for the coronavirus mounted, Sen. Bob Casey vented on Twitter about the scarcity of tests needed to determine who has the virus.

"Right now in America, it is easier to get an AR-15 than a test kit for COVID-19," the Democrat from Pennsylvania tweeted March 13.

We wanted to know how Pennsylvanians’ access to firearms compares with the availability of coronavirus tests in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. The answer illustrates how quickly things change as government officials scramble to combat the spread of the virus.

When Casey sent that tweet more than a week ago, there were no restrictions on gun sales and demand was high. Customers eyeing a rifle like an AR-15 would have needed to pass an instant background check and show proof that they were over 18. That’s standard procedure.

Anxious customers were so eager to stock up on guns and ammo that the line outside a South Philadelphia firearms dealer one recent day stretched out the door and down the block.

Meanwhile, tests for the coronavirus were extremely scarce. It was that same day (March 13) that President Donald Trump acknowledged the shortage, declared coronavirus a national emergency, and vowed to make 500,000 tests available the following week. That means Casey’s statement at the time was accurate.

But a lot can change in a few days – especially during a pandemic.

Sales of firearms ground to a halt Friday after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all businesses not considered "life-sustaining" to close their doors and many counties stopped issuing new license-to-carry permits. Then on Tuesday, Wolf quietly reversed course and allowed gun shops to reopen after several Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices urged him to do so.

Firearms dealers may now see customers by appointment as long as they keep them six feet apart inside shops.

Pennsylvania’s gun background check system is still "running full bore," said Trooper Brent Miller, a spokesperson for the State Police, despite rumors that it had been shut down. But until counties reopen their license-to-carry divisions, firearm owners without permits will, in almost all circumstances, not be able to carry the guns they buy without risking arrest.

And while there are nowhere near as many coronavirus tests available as Trump promised there would be when he spoke on March 13, the number of Pennsylvanians getting tested is climbing steadily each day. There are now more than a dozen testing sites open in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, and state health officials say more than 5,000 people have been tested so far.

It was easier to get an AR-15 than a coronavirus test when Casey sent that tweet. And for a few days when gun sellers were forced to close their doors, things were different. But now that Wolf has cleared the way for the shops to reopen, it has once again become easier for people to get a semiautomatic rifle than a coronavirus test.

Get outside

The top official in the county that has been at the center of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus outbreak tried to reassure her constituents about the relative safety of the great outdoors during a virtual town hall last week.

"You absolutely can go outside, particularly with the people in... your household, go outside and take walks and get on the trails," said Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners and a physician.

As more places order residents to "shelter in place" to beat back the coronavirus, we wondered whether it’s still safe to take a walk or go for a run. The answer, according to public health officials, is yes.

Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said going outside is safe, and being inside all day is not healthy.

Staying cooped up in the house can "really start to affect our mental health," said David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department.

And Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s shelter-in-place order explicitly exempts "walking, running, cycling, operating a wheelchair, or engaging in outdoor activities with immediate family members, caretakers, household members or romantic partners" — as long as you stay six feet away from others.

So, yes, Arkoosh’s advice is good advice.

This post has been update to reflect Gov. Tom Wolf's decision to allow Pennsylvania gun shops to reopen with some limitations even as other businesses across the state remain closed. 

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Our Sources

The Philadelphia Inquirer, "As coronavirus spreads, Philly ‘not turning a blind eye to crime,’ Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw says," March 18, 2020

Philadelphia Police Department memo written by Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and obtained by The Inquirer

WHYY, "‘I’m an essential business’: Gun shops in Pa. packed ahead of coronavirus closures," March 16, 2020\

The Wall Street Journal, "Coronavirus Testing Chaos Across America," March 19, 2020

Phone interview with Trooper Brent Miller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Police, on March 19, 2020

The Philadelphia Inquirer, " It’s spring. We want to go outside. How do we safely social distance?" March 20, 2020

City of Philadelphia Emergency Order Temporarily Prohibiting Operations of Non-Essential Businesses

Fact-checking coronavirus claims by Pennsylvania politicians