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Pa. threatens at least 150 restaurants with fines or closure for allowing indoor dining in defiance of state ban

A day after Philadelphia said its post-Thanksgiving surge in cases may be tapering off, Montgomery County noted its hospitalizations may also be starting to plateau, a possible good sign.

With a ban on indoor dining in effect in Philadelphia -- and now statewide -- the normally packed Chickie & Pete's sports bar and restaurant in South Philadelphia was vacant during the Nov. 30 Eagles game.
With a ban on indoor dining in effect in Philadelphia -- and now statewide -- the normally packed Chickie & Pete's sports bar and restaurant in South Philadelphia was vacant during the Nov. 30 Eagles game.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

At least 150 restaurants had defied Pennsylvania’s new ban on indoor dining and received warnings within the first three days of the order, the state reported Wednesday, as the coronavirus death toll surpassed 13,000 and officials around the region asked residents to stay cautious during the winter storm and holiday season.

The restaurant owners could face fines or temporary closure for flouting the new restrictions, which went into effect Saturday for three weeks in an attempt by state officials to suppress the rise in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Some restaurant owners who ignored the governor’s order have said they opposed Pennsylvania’s mandates; others said they refused to lay off employees so close to the holidays. A trade group said that the restaurant industry is “on the brink of disaster” and that some business owners felt they had no choice but to continue to serve customers indoors.

State officials said they have sent warning letters to those that have not complied, threatening them with fines of up to $300 a day or closure until they agree to serve only takeout and outdoor dining. A Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture spokesperson also said inspectors will begin unannounced visits to noncompliant businesses.

The restrictions, which are in effect until Jan. 4, are part of a bid to slow the fall surge, which barreled ahead Wednesday: Pennsylvania reported more than 10,000 newly confirmed cases of the virus and 278 deaths. Those numbers mean the number of new confirmed infections statewide each day has topped 10,000 for nine out of December’s 16 days. And the seven-day daily average of deaths hit 200 for the first time during the pandemic.

The numbers nationwide were equally grim — 3,000 new deaths and nearly 200,000 new cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

» READ MORE: The day after Pa. administers first COVID-19 vaccines, N.J. and Delaware do the same

But in some spots there was a hint of a possible decline, and glimmers of hope. A day after Philadelphia said its post-Thanksgiving surge in cases may be tapering off — and as hospitals across the state continued rolling out vaccinations — Montgomery County noted its hospitalization numbers were nearly the same as last week.

“We’ve been experiencing an unprecedented surge in cases since Thanksgiving but are hopeful that we’re starting to level off and hopefully we will begin to trend downward,” County Commissioners’ Chair Val Arkoosh said at a news conference.

‘We need a plan’

Among those hoping desperately for relief are restaurant owners.

State officials have said that they hope Congress provides aid — it moved closer to a deal on a stimulus package Wednesday — but that the virus has forced them to close indoor services because it spreads most easily when people are indoors and not wearing masks. Gyms and other indoor entertainment businesses are also under orders to stay closed until Jan. 4, and some gym owners defied the edict over the weekend.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Monday pleaded with businesses to comply, saying the temporary ban aims to hold down rising case numbers long enough to ease the pressure on hospitals inundated with coronavirus patients.

» READ MORE: Dozens of Pennsylvania restaurants and gyms remain open as new restrictions go into effect

In Philadelphia, which shut down indoor dining in November and has its own enforcement system, restaurant owners told members of City Council on Wednesday that Mayor Jim Kenney’s restrictions have pushed the hospitality industry to the brink.

“Some [business owners] feel like they’ve been targeted,” said Councilman Allan Domb, who chairs the committee that held the hearing on the economic impact of the pandemic. “Many haven’t felt like they’ve had a seat at the table.”

Nicole Marquis, founder and CEO of HipCityVeg, asked the city to return to less-restrictive rules for outdoor dining, to allow restaurants with certain ventilation systems to have indoor dining, and to shut down more streets to car traffic to facilitate additional outdoor seating, among other requests.

“Time is running out,” Marquis said. “We need a plan.”

The city’s coronavirus restrictions are set to expire Jan. 1, but with the virus still spreading rapidly, it is unlikely Kenney’s administration will significantly relax restrictions on New Year’s Day.

The city’s health commissioner, Thomas Farley, said officials are striving to balance keeping Philadelphians alive and healthy with the impact of restrictions on businesses.

“What we in the Health Department have tried to do is limit the spread of the virus, limit the number of people who die from it, while having minimal impact to the economy,” Farley said. “Restaurants have been demonstrated through a number of studies to be very high-risk settings for spread.”

A Drexel University study in May found that the city’s restrictions during the spring wave of the virus’ spread in Philadelphia saved 6,200 lives and prevented 57,000 hospitalizations.

‘Hunker down’

Philadelphia announced 882 newly confirmed cases and 56 deaths Wednesday. The above-average death number didn’t represent a one-day spike in fatalities but was because the city had reconciled its count with data collected by the state, city officials said.

Coronavirus vaccinations began in Philadelphia on Wednesday for employees at Einstein Medical Center, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Temple University Hospital.

By Wednesday, 8,775 doses had arrived in the region, at the three hospitals and Doylestown Hospital.

Pennsylvania had 6,295 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of Wednesday, more than double the number during the spring surge. Of those, 1,264 are in intensive care units. Two weeks ago, 4,744 people were hospitalized statewide, 967 in intensive care.

New Jersey reported 5,803 cases and 91 deaths. Hospitalizations were nearing 3,700, Gov. Phil Murphy said.

He asked residents to stay vigilant against the coronavirus even during the winter storm.

“The pandemic does not take a snow day,” Murphy said.

As vaccine deliveries make their way across Pennsylvania, most Montgomery County hospitals will be receiving doses this week, said Arkoosh, the commissioners’ chair and a physician. As in other places, there aren’t enough doses for everyone working in the hospitals to be vaccinated at the outset, so the first batch will go to prioritized workers.

In the last week, 378 county residents have been newly infected — from a days-old baby to a 99-year-old, Arkoosh said. And though there was hope of cases plateauing, hospitals continued to “face critical limits” in staffing as a high number of virus patients are hospitalized.

Arkoosh said the county had seen a significant and unprecedented surge in cases after Thanksgiving and asked residents to remember that when considering plans for Christmas and New Year’s.

“We continue to be in a very serious and rapidly evolving situation,” Arkoosh said. “In a few short months, there will be a safe and effective vaccine for our community at large, but we need to hunker down between now and then.”

Contributing to this article were staff writers Ellie Silverman, Laura McCrystal, Erin McCarthy, Rob Tornoe, and Allison Steele.