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PHILADELPHIA – Pregnant women are calling up the mayor, concerned they won't be able to get to the delivery room. Some businesses say they've been told to close for a three-day weekend. Others are bringing in cots for workers to sleep. Taxi drivers, fearing onerous checkpoints and distant drop-off locations, are planning to stay home.
With official information scant just eight weeks before Pope Francis makes Philadelphia the centerpiece of his U.S. trip, rumors are swirling about massive security fencing and miles of street closures. Residents and visitors alike fear long walks to and from papal events, too-few bathrooms, and a dearth of food and other amenities in areas where delivery trucks could be restricted.
The lack of clear information is breeding confusion and consternation in the City of Brotherly Love and contempt for the people who run it — particularly around the downtown parkway where Francis is expected to attend an outdoor concert and celebrate Mass before more than 1 million people.
"There are serious logistical problems for residents and visitors alike," said Barbara Epstein, who lives three blocks from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. "It would be nice if the powers that be could reassure us that our lives aren't going to be disrupted in an irreconcilable way."
City officials are blaming the Secret Service, which has declared Francis' Sept. 26-27 visit a National Special Security Event. The agency said it would release road closure and security checkpoint information about three weeks before he lands — leaving the city and visit organizers vulnerable to rumors.
"Security plans are fluid and continue to evolve," Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback said Thursday. "As soon as the plans have been settled on by all of the many partners involved in the planning process, we will jointly share the final plans."
Mayor Michael Nutter this week repudiated maps that popped up showing purported security and vehicle-free zones covering most of downtown, saying they were unofficial and premature. He blamed "little people who have little pieces of information" and speculative reporting for misleading the public.
Nutter, who mentioned the calls from the expectant mothers at a news conference this week, said the city would start providing updates next week. Organizers of the World Meeting of Families — the triennial Roman Catholic conference that is attracting Francis to Philadelphia — said it will post a "Papal Visit Playbook" for residents to its website next month.
"We're all eager to put the rumors to rest and put the information out there," said World Meeting Executive Director Donna Crilley Farrell. "But as the mayor said, it has to be the correct information."
Officials have confirmed there will be some type of security fencing — commonly used at big events like presidential inaugurations and Philadelphia's annual Made in America concert — but the size and scope have not been disclosed.
They have also said there will certainly be street and highway closures, particularly when the pope is in transit, but would not confirm a planning consultant's claim that the Benjamin Franklin Bridge — a vital link to Philadelphia's New Jersey suburbs across the Delaware River — would close. The consultant, who also requested that Interstate 95 be closed for the duration of Francis' visit, has since been dismissed from the papal planning process.
With dozens of agencies involved in the planning and so many details to work out — from accommodations for visiting clergy to the number of portable toilets on the parkway — some stakeholders are feeling left out.
"We haven't heard anything concrete yet," said Ron Blount, the president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania. "We're asking every day."
The clearest details on logistics so far have come from Philadelphia's regional transit agencies — and even those haven't instilled confidence.
Commuter and subway train service will be severely limited, with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority limiting the number of tickets each day to 175,000 to ease overcrowding; normal daily ridership is about 130,000. After a computer system crashed last week, the agency said it would sell the passes only through an online lottery. Regular tickets won't be accepted.
"I don't think they are at all considering the lives of their regular riders who must still work, volunteer or just go about their daily lives in spite of the Pope's visit," said Steve Flemming, a Philadelphia teacher.
Francis is expected to stay at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary just outside the city limits in Lower Merion Township. The police chief there said residents should prepare "as if it's a big snowstorm," encouraging them to fill their cars with gas and stock up on milk, bread and other staples.
The reward of seeing Francis in person is worth the potential hurdles, Farrell said, comparing the visit to a recent feat from a now-traded Phillies pitcher.
"I say, it's awesome to watch Cole Hamels throw that no-hitter on television," she said, "but wouldn't you rather say you were in the ballpark?"