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Aiming to stop the virus ‘in its tracks,’ Wolf imposes new restrictions on bars, restaurants, and indoor gatherings, warning that Pa. could see a new surge

“Medical experts looking at our current trajectory are projecting that a new surge is in the offing, and what we’re seeing right now could soon be even worse than what we saw before,” the governor said.

Outdoor seating is shown outside Parc Restaurant in Philadelphia, PA. Friday, June 12, 2020.
Outdoor seating is shown outside Parc Restaurant in Philadelphia, PA. Friday, June 12, 2020.Read more / File Photograph

With coronavirus cases rising again in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday imposed new, tighter restrictions on bars, restaurants, and indoor gatherings statewide — saying it was early action that could stop the virus’ spread and prevent any further shutdowns.

The rollbacks, which limit indoor gatherings to 25 people and impose capacity and operating limits on eateries and bars, are the first the administration has announced since it began reopening counties in May.

With the new rules, Pennsylvania joins a growing list of states that have clamped down again after loosening restrictions. Unlike states reacting to major surges, however, Pennsylvania’s move is preemptive — aiming to “stop this in its tracks right now,” Wolf said at a news conference.

“Medical experts looking at our current trajectory are projecting that a new surge is in the offing, and what we’re seeing right now could soon be even worse than what we saw before,” the governor said. “Before, we succeeded at flattening the curve. … We need to act again, but this time, we have more knowledge and we can act in a more focused manner.”

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At the state’s pandemic peak in April, it confirmed 2,000 new virus cases in one day. By mid-June, the counts had dropped to 300 or 400 new cases per day, but the number of daily new cases has risen again, hitting 1,000 last week and 994 on Wednesday.

After averaging about 400 new cases a day less than a month ago, the state is now averaging close to 800. Case counts have increased in 43 counties and the percentage of people testing positive has increased in 28 counties over about a week, said Health Secretary Rachel Levine.

“This action is necessary now to stop the spread of COVID-19 and stop the disease transmission cycle from repeating,” Levine said. “By acting now ... we can get ahead of the curve.”

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The restrictions are also a reaction to crises in states across the country, where reopenings allowed the infection to spread and where hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, testing is delayed, and areas are breaking records for new cases or deaths.

The United States reported 67,417 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, a record high and the seventh straight day over 60,000 new cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. In Florida, Texas, California, Georgia, and Arizona alone, 450,000 people have come down with the virus since July 1, according to data from the New York Times.

» READ MORE: Florida invited the nation to its reopening — and then it became a new coronavirus epicenter

Pennsylvania officials said they did not want to wait until there was that kind of exponential growth in cases to take steps to prevent further transmission of the virus.

Under its new guidelines, bars and restaurants can only seat people indoors at up to 25% capacity instead of 50%. Alcohol can only be served with food orders, and no bar service is allowed. Bars can operate only if they serve dine-in meals or carry-out alcohol; nightclubs must close.

Though eateries can operate at 25% capacity, individual events inside bars and restaurants, such as private parties, must obey the 25-person limit. The occupancy limits include employees.

The new guidelines also require businesses to have employees telework, except in situations where it is not possible.

Outdoor dining restrictions will not change, and to-go cocktails are still available. Gyms and fitness centers are allowed to continue indoor operations, though the state asked them to “prioritize” outdoor fitness activities.

In response to the announcement, the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association called on the state to create a bailout package for the industry that would include financial assistance and eliminate all state fees for restaurant and tavern owners.

“At a time when the industry is already struggling, this makes matters worse,” the association said in a statement. “Without help, we will see more small business restaurants and taverns not survive.”

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre/Mifflin) said the governor was ignoring the “voices of the people” and taking “devastating” unilateral action.

“Gov. Wolf’s decision today will close the doors of some small businesses forever and devastate the livelihoods of so many Pennsylvanians who were just beginning to feel hopeful for the future,” Benninghoff said in a statement.

The restrictions are “extremely challenging” for bars and restaurants, Levine acknowledged, “but this is where the virus is spreading now and this is where we have to take action.” She and Wolf said they believed the restrictions would be effective, which would mean the state would avoid the need to impose further lockdowns in the weeks or months ahead.

Businesses or people who don’t follow the restrictions could be fined, closed, or subject to other penalties, the governor’s office said, but Wolf did not spell out any plan to enforce the rules, though he said there are “legal consequences” for failing to abide by the measures.

He said liquor enforcement officers have made thousands of inspections at restaurants and bars statewide and issued “some” warnings. Most establishments have followed shutdown orders so far, he said.

Officials chose the new restrictions based on what public health experts have learned since the spring about how the virus spreads indoors and in the air: Contact tracing in Pennsylvania and other states has shown that many people have caught the virus indoors and at venues such as bars and restaurants.

With seven weeks until Labor Day, the move also aims to give the state “a fighting chance” to be able to reopen schools in the fall, Wolf said. The Philadelphia School District announced its reopening plans Wednesday, saying city schools would open in September but most children would attend school in-person only two days a week.

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David Rubin, a general pediatrician and director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said at the news briefing that there was “extremely clear” evidence that the disease resurgence is quickly moving from the South and Southwest into the Northeast region of the United States.

The hospital’s virus tracker has shown “increased disease activity” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania counties surrounding Philadelphia and increased risk of transmission statewide, he said.

“Simply stated, we are seeing now widespread community transmission throughout the Northeast,” Rubin said. “It’s of sufficient concern now that if we do not act decisively in the next six weeks, we may not be in the favorable terrain we had hoped to be in.”

Wolf blamed the increased transmission on people ignoring the state requirement to wear face masks in public and failing to practice social distancing; travel in and out of Pennsylvania; and a lack of national coordination in stopping the spread in other states.

Because of the increase in cases nationwide, test results from the national companies LabCorp and Quest have become delayed. Local laboratories, including the state’s and those run by hospitals, have good turnaround times, city and state officials said. But Philadelphia found that the national laboratories take about a day to report a negative result but seven days to return a positive one, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.

He said the city was exploring whether they could redirect tests to other labs, while Levine said “a national response” was needed to help overburdened labs.

In New Jersey, signs of decline in cases and spread continue. Still, cases are rising among younger people, as they are in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.

Philadelphia confirmed 144 new cases of the virus Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the city put a moratorium on all public events through February, saying it was a necessary safety measure to prevent the spread of the virus until the population can be vaccinated. Farley also said allowing spectators at sporting events would be unsafe and is illegal under Mayor Jim Kenney’s executive order for reopening.

“We have been in communication with the Eagles. We have told them our expectations are that they don’t have fans. And my understanding is NFL guidelines also provide authority and remind teams that local authorities have the ability to ban fans, so I don’t expect any issues,” Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Tuesday.

But on Wednesday, Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble backtracked, saying spectators would not be allowed under current rules but that those rules could change if the city eases its social distancing requirements before or during the professional football season.

“It’s a fluid situation, and that policy is under constant review,” said Gamble. “Discussions are continuing between the city and the Eagles.”

Staff writers Sean Collins Walsh, Allison Steele, and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article, along with Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA.