by Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA and Jamie Martines of Spotlight PA
Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf is suspending indoor dining for three weeks beginning Saturday as part of a renewed effort to slow the coronavirus surge in Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine also announced a three-week pause of in-person extracurricular activities and sports at public and private schools. Collegiate and professional activities such as the NFL may continue, though spectators will be banned.
“Every time we do one of the little things that let us be safer, we’re working together for that brighter future,” Wolf said during a 4 p.m. news conference.
Indoor events will be limited to no more than 10 people, and outdoor events to no more than 50 people, until at least Jan. 4. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and other places of worship are excluded.
Entertainment facilities including movie theaters, concert venues, casinos, and clubs must temporarily close, while indoor retail stores must limit their capacity to 50% “except as limited by existing orders to a smaller capacity limit.” Gyms and fitness facilities were also directed to pause indoor operations for three weeks.
The restrictions, which are set to expire at 8 a.m. on Jan. 4, come as new confirmed coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania continue to break records and hospitals struggle to stay ahead of rising admissions and a potential staffing crisis. Wolf is currently isolating at home after testing positive for COVID-19.
The mitigation efforts announced Thursday do not include a blanket stay-at-home order like the measures taken at the beginning of the pandemic this spring. Rather, they are focused on preventing people from congregating and spending extended periods of time indoors and close to each other.
Levine and Wolf were joined by a panel of public health professionals and doctors who detailed how health systems are becoming overwhelmed with patients, and how vital it is to follow social mitigation efforts.
“As we all know, the heart attacks, the strokes, the GI bleeds — those kinds of things are still happening in our communities. And we, as hospitals and health systems, still have a responsibility to be available for that kind of care,” Dr. Jaewon Ryu, president of the health system Geisinger, said. “COVID has frankly stretched our ability to do that.”
The state Department of Health reported 11,972 new coronavirus cases Thursday. As of this morning, hospitals in the southwest and south-central regions of the state were reporting that they anticipate staffing shortages within the next week, state data show.
Spotlight PA first learned the details of the mitigation efforts from a source on Wednesday. When asked for comment, Wolf’s spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger, said some of the information was inaccurate but would not elaborate. On Thursday, when again presented with details of the plan as confirmed by additional sources, Kensinger again cast doubt on Spotlight PA’s information.
The reporting Spotlight PA presented to Kensinger matched what Wolf and Levine officially unveiled Thursday.
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said he recognizes the state is “facing a serious resurgence of COVID-19” but asked Wolf to not use his “executive order pen to devastate lives and livelihoods. He instead pleaded with Pennsylvanians to follow mitigation efforts.
“Canceling Christmas is not the answer,” Benninghoff said in a statement Thursday, before the plan was announced.
Thursday’s announcement was foreshadowed by a round of advisories and orders ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday aimed at limiting gathering sizes and keeping people at home.
The administration banned the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants for one night, Thanksgiving eve, and scaled back capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings. The Nov. 23 orders also created staffing, bed capacity, and admissions metrics that, if met, would require hospitals to limit elective procedures in order to free up resources to treat a surge of COVID-19 patients.
The state’s stay-at-home advisory, also issued Nov. 23, remains in place, along with an order requiring residents to wear a mask any time they leave the house.
“The hope was that the things that I did put into place would be enough to take us through the Thanksgiving season,” Wolf said Thursday. “It didn’t work out as well as I hoped it would.”
In Philadelphia, gyms, casinos, and indoor entertainment venues have been closed and indoor dining banned since Nov. 20. Allegheny County officials stopped short of issuing local restrictions this week and insisted that statewide or regional mitigation guidelines were necessary to stop the spread of the virus.
“An Allegheny County-only mitigation strategy won’t stop people from crossing county borders to work, to go to restaurants, attend weddings, funerals, visit friends and family, or attend sporting events,” Allegheny County Health Director Debra Bogen said Wednesday.
The temporary ban on indoor dining is most likely to have the biggest impact on front-of-house workers like servers and bartenders, who can only be employed if an establishment is doing enough business in house, John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said Wednesday.
The industry has been struggling since early in the pandemic, when shutdown orders forced them to close their doors. Takeout and to-go cocktails have helped to supplement sales, but without federal relief, many businesses are unlikely to survive the pandemic, Longstreet said.
“It’s a desperate situation,” he said, pointing to the results of a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association in November.
About 37% of the 6,000 respondents who participated nationwide said that they do not expect to be in business six months from now without additional government aid.
State lawmakers in May approved the use of $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money for a variety of purposes including relief for counties, small businesses, and long-term care facilities, where thousands of residents have died since the pandemic began. In November, they used the remaining $1.3 billion in flexible CARES Act funding to prop up the state budget, rather than create a grant or loan program for ailing industries including restaurants and bars.
As of Thursday afternoon, neighboring states had yet to put more stringent restrictions in place ahead of the December holidays.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said earlier this week that new plans could be released Friday. On Monday, he said indoor dining would be closed in New York City and reduced to 25% capacity in the rest of the state if hospitalizations did not stabilize.
Gov. Mike DeWine, of Ohio, said Monday that he would extend the state’s 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, which was set to expire Thursday. Businesses, bars, and restaurants have been allowed to operate with some restrictions on gathering sizes.