Surging COVID-19 cases led all of Pennsylvania’s neighbors to enact new restrictions in recent days but Gov. Tom Wolf has avoided a statewide rollback so far.
In recent weeks, the state repeatedly broke its single-day record for new coronavirus cases, with health officials warning of substantial spread in 59 counties. Meanwhile, 9.6% of all tests coming back positive, a sign of undetected transmission across the state.
The state Department of Health reported 9,675 new positive cases over the weekend, bringing the statewide total total to 269,613. In all, 9,325 people have died from COVID-19.
At a press conference Monday morning, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the state had no plans to return to a red-yellow-green system like it followed in the spring and summer, when infection rates were significantly lower than they are now.
A department spokesman said that does not mean there won’t be any new restrictions, adding that “we anticipate making further announcements this week.”
Levine also emphasized decision-making by local governments, a seeming pivot from the Wolf administration’s approach in the spring, when it cracked down on Lebanon County for unilaterally lifting its red phase designation.
“We support local communities taking action to stop the spread and doing what’s necessary to stop the spread,” Levine said.
On Monday, Philadelphia announced its own restrictions, which include bans indoor dining entirely and limits outdoor gatherings to 10 percent occupancy or a maximum of 2,000 people. High schools, colleges, gyms, casinos and theaters will all be closed.
Retail shops will be limited to 5% of occupancy or 5 people per 1,000 square feet. For context, if such a regulation was enacted statewide, the Walmart off the Carlisle Pike would be limited to 452 customers at any one time. Philly religious institutions will have the same occupancy limit.
The city’s new restrictions also ban private indoor gatherings with people outside of the immediate household, although local health officials noted that the rule is practically unenforceable.
Currently, Pennsylvania allows most businesses to operate at 75% capacity and restaurants to offer indoor dining at 50% capacity. Indoor and outdoor gatherings are subject to a staggered system based on the size of the venue with the largest venues permitted maximum gatherings of 3,750 and 7,500 people, respectively.
The state has not issued formal guidelines for private family gatherings, such as those expected around the holidays but Levine made a plea for the public to exercise caution.
“As much as possible, we want people to remain in their household,” she said. “I know that’s an enormous sacrifice . . . but that’s what we need to do to stand united against this virus.”
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy limited indoor gatherings to 10 people, down from 25, and outdoor ones to 150, down from the previous limit of 500. He left in place a 25% capacity limit on indoor dining but ordered restaurants to close at 10 p.m. and gave local governments the option to enact a 8 p.m. curfew.
Murphy also warned Monday of a possible return to a statewide lockdown: “Do we reserve the right to shut everything down? Sadly, we have to with these numbers.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to announce new restrictions for his state Tuesday which he described as a “slow down” instead of a shutdown. Local news agencies reported a possible 10 p.m. statewide curfew based on DeWine’s conversations with business leaders in advance of the rollout.
DeWine already handed down signage mandates for businesses that took effect Monday, including a requirement that they cooperate with health and law enforcement inspections. A second violation in Ohio could result in a business’ closure for 24 hours. Pennsylvania already has such rules, although few businesses have been formally cited for violations.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan announced restrictions that cut indoor dining from 75% to 50% capacity and limited indoor gatherings to 25 people or less.
“I’m going to tell it to you straight,” Hogan said last week. “The sad truth is, the next several months will likely be, by far, the most difficult that we have faced.”
In West Virginia, which has generally eschewed such restrictions, Gov. Jim Justice issued a mask wearing order Sunday and required schools to use remote instruction from Thanksgiving through Dec. 3.
Last week, New York also enacted a statewide 10 p.m. curfew for bars, restaurants and gyms, although it allows curbside pickup and delivery of non-alcohol orders after 10 p.m. It also limited both indoor and outdoor gatherings to 10 people.
Over the weekend, Wolf joined a video summit with the governors of a several northeast states to discuss coordinating new restrictions. It remained unclear Monday what may emerge from those discussions.
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