The Malvern Borough building, otherwise known as McGuigan Hall, houses the administrative staff, police department and public library. The borough has made a series of decisions to limit city business that requires in-person interaction. (Erica Dougherty/B&W Staff

How one small Philadelphia suburb is adjusting to the pandemic

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At first glance, the borough looks like Christmas Day.

The newly-remodeled glass doors of Anthony’s Pizza and Italian Restaurant are locked, and the neon lights are out over the bar in the Flying Pig Saloon. 

The color-coordinated sequins of the gowns in Occasions Boutique’s window have not been changed in over a week, and no bells sing the hours in St. Patrick’s stone steeple.

All of the residents’ cars remain parked in the driveways of the Tudor-style homes on Monument and Prospect, and the only sound outside the scallop-trim windows is of the wind brushing through the trees.

The Malvern borough looks like Christmas Day, but the only present left is uncertainty.

Located 25 miles west of Philadelphia, the town of Malvern is home to several corporate hubs, a historic borough, top-ranked high schools and about 3,500 full-time residents. Though smaller than its neighboring municipalities, Malvern’s urban-rural setting balance and close proximity to renowned shopping areas marks it as an attractive location within the affluent Main Line suburbs.

While the town is known for its friendly hometown feel, Malvern’s culture has changed following the state-wide shutdown in March. Due to its unpredictability and health concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Malvern to make transformative adjustments to its community, administration and police structures over the past two months.

A prominent feature of the Malvern community is Immaculata University, the town’s only private college. Situated on 373 scenic acres outside of the historic borough, Immaculata serves 1,500 students each academic year.

Immaculata is also the full-time residence of The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, an order of Roman-Catholic nuns. Thirty sisters work within the university, while retired sisters occupy Camilla Hall, a retirement community on campus. Though the university closed to students in mid-March, the sisters continue to work and live on the grounds.

Sister Mary Henrich, the university’s vice president of mission and ministry, said Malvern’s shutdown has changed daily life at Immaculata. While she sees members of the community walking and biking on campus, she said the closed buildings and lack of students have been among the most difficult impacts of the pandemic.

“I am sitting here in my office, and it feels like the loneliest building in the world,” Henrich said. “The emptiness really gets to me. I miss everybody. I miss the students and all of the interactions with the people that I’m used to talking to every day of my life.”

In spite of the university’s closure, Henrich explained that she and the sisters have remained busy. In addition to conducting classes and meetings remotely, the sisters have made donations to local parishes and food banks, hosted virtual ministry-related activities for students and held morning and evening mass each day in the convent chapel.

Although the activities fill their time, the sisters have also been occupied by the implementation of preventive health measures on campus. Henrich described how they have to limit seating in the dining hall, clean bathrooms and tables every day, use designated sinks for hand-washing, wear masks and send only two sisters to the grocery stores. For health care, the sisters have access to virtual doctor appointments and to prescriptions through Camilla Hall, the latter of which they receive at the door since the building is quarantined.

Though the new measures require adjustments, Henrich noted that they are necessary to keep herself, the sisters and Malvern safe, which is her top priority at this time.

“I feel responsible — certainly for myself — but also for the other 29 sisters,” Henrich said. “I don’t want to let the guard down, and I want to keep everyone safe, because if one of us goes down, everybody goes down. We’re very careful with that.”

Keeping Malvern and its residents safe is also the primary goal of the town’s historic borough. Despite being less than 1.3 square miles in size, the Borough of Malvern is its own municipality. Comprised of several departments, an administrative staff office, a seven-member borough council and a mayor, the Malvern administration was among the first in the county to declare a state of emergency.

Amy Finkbiner, the borough council’s president, said the administration’s decision to close the town because of COVID-19 did not initially have a significant impact on the borough’s residents.

“I think that because we were so early, there wasn’t too much reaction,” Finkbiner said. “I think it became real to people the next week when we started closing the parks, and I think that was the first time that people noticed that this was different and that it was going to be hard.”

The Robert Michael’s Salon is a staple of the Malvern Shopping Center and has closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Erica Dougherty/B&W Staff)

To combat the difficulties of the shutdown, Mayor David Burton and the other administrators have written and enacted new procedures regarding town functions and businesses. Local tax and sewer bill deadlines have been extended through the end of the summer, building permits are now available by appointment only and the administration itself has transitioned to a rotational, remote office schedule to maintain social distancing. The council is also meeting regularly with the local business administration to figure out how local establishments will reopen after the pandemic.

However, some of the most notable procedural changes have taken place in the Malvern Police Department, where Chief Lou Marcelli has rewritten various directives and policies to both protect the community and maintain the effectiveness of the department.

Marcelli said each officer must take their temperature before their shift, as temperature is a key differentiator between COVID-19 and seasonal allergies. Once cleared, officers are expected to handle matters over the phone unless a house visit is necessary, at which point the officers must assess a situation without entering the home and while wearing personal protective equipment (PPEs) such as masks and latex gloves.

Marcelli also noted that the arrest procedure has been altered. For misdemeanor and more serious violations, officers must complete paperwork while the person remains outside the building. The officer then transports the person to the jail for processing and a virtual arraignment. Summary violations only require officers to take photos of the person’s identification with their cellphones.

While Marcelli acknowledged that domestic disturbances and other crimes have occurred in surrounding areas during the shutdown, he said Malvern residents have been cooperative and supportive.

“People are sick of this and are going off to do things that they’re not supposed to do,” Marcelli said. “In the Malvern borough, we’re really lucky with our community. People are paying attention and they are obeying the rules.” 

Following the law, including the new health safety mandates, appears to be paying off for Malvern. According to the Chester County Health Department, the Malvern borough has only had 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no deaths as of date of publication, one of the lowest numbers in the surrounding townships.

Malvern is also outperforming its neighbors in terms of finances. Unlike Upper Merion, which is home to the King of Prussia mall, and other townships, Malvern doesn’t rely heavily on business taxes for revenue. As a result, the borough’s reserves and structure has allowed the administration to avoid taking drastic actions like layoffs and furloughs.

Borough Manager Chris Bashore pointed to the borough’s long-standing history of financial responsibility as a key reason behind Malvern’s stability during the pandemic.

“Because of the strong fiscal leadership that’s been in place for a significant period of time, we haven’t had to make a lot of the really difficult decisions that you’ve read about a lot of other communities having to make,” Bashore said.

Despite the continued closure of the town, both the administration and the residents have taken steps to extend their support to the Malvern community. The administration has set up a distribution site for both the local farmer’s market and the Great Valley Lunch Program, the latter of which provides free daily meals to K-12 students in the area, while Marcelli and the Malvern police are offering drive-by parades to celebrate upcoming birthdays and graduations.

These signs line East King Street, which runs directly through the borough and is home to most of the borough’s businesses. (Erica Dougherty/B&W Staff)

At the same time, Malvern Preparatory School, a private boy’s school in the borough, and individual residents, have donated boxes of PPE to the police department, which has partnered with neighboring townships to distribute supplies to those in need.

In spite of the changes that the Malvern community has undergone because of the pandemic, the administration said the town’s atmosphere remains strong. Finkbiner noted that, while factors like next year’s town budget and the continued safety of the residents remain undecided, being in Malvern has been a definite advantage for its residents during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our public works department has been doing a good job, the police have been doing a great job and the residents have been cooperative,” Finkbiner said. “A lot of people are suffering and it’s very stressful, but if I had to pick somewhere to be right now, it would absolutely be here.”

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1 Comment

  1. Alice keenan on

    Malvern covid19 pandemic article was informative and showed how a wonderful community working together to protect residents.

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