New pandemic measures will take hold in Pennsylvania on Saturday, the most sweeping attempt yet — though a temporary one — by Gov. Tom Wolf to combat the fall coronavirus surge as case numbers and hospitalizations continue to spiral.
Until Jan. 4, Pennsylvania will shut down indoor dining, suspend school sports and extracurriculars, close all casinos, gyms, and other entertainment venues, lower retail occupancy limits, and sharply reduce the number of people allowed to gather in one place from Saturday.
Hospital leaders said the new measures could be pivotal in helping the health-care system and in slowing the spread of the virus as the holiday season begins, but the restrictions prompted an outcry from the hospitality industry and other business owners.
The new restrictions come at a point when the state’s daily case numbers have skyrocketed, with more than 10,000 people newly infected each day for five out of the last eight days, and hospitals are reporting major strains on capacity and staff. And the pandemic is worsening nationwide, with a record 3,124 deaths reported Wednesday.
Pennsylvania logged nearly 12,000 new cases and almost 250 new deaths Thursday, with more than 5,800 hospitalized.
“We all hoped it would not come to this, but the current surge in Pennsylvania will not allow us to wait,” Wolf said. “For the next three weeks … I’m asking that we work together to turn the tide of this surge so that our communities can safely bridge the gap between where we stand today and when a vaccine is widely available.”
The measures weren’t unexpected — Wolf had said Monday he was considering restrictions — and they did not go as far as the more stringent, and longer-term, shutdown of schools and businesses in the spring. But nine months into a pandemic that has drained most people financially and emotionally, criticism of the new steps came swiftly.
The shutdown of indoor dining, which had been permitted statewide since late June, will be “devastating” to the hospitality industry, said John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, who like Wolf called on Congress to pass a relief package.
“Hundreds of businesses are teetering on the brink of financial disaster, and the livelihood of thousands of employees are on the line,” he said in a statement. “The governor offers us nothing but lip service by acknowledging the hospitality industry’s precarious financial situation when our expertise is repeatedly ignored when drafting mitigation orders.”
Republican state lawmakers have opposed broad shutdowns throughout the pandemic, and ahead of Wolf’s announcement Republican House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff called on him not to “devastate lives and livelihoods.”
Benninghoff said residents should be trusted to behave responsibly on their own.
“Nine months into this pandemic, we know over-broad government orders do more long-term harm than good, economically, emotionally and mentally,” Benninghoff said in a statement. “I recognize we are facing a serious resurgence of COVID-19 and our health care systems are struggling to keep up with the increased demand; however, job-crushing, harmful government mandates are not the answer.”
Modeling shows that if the state were to continue on its current path, it could see 15,000 to 20,000 new cases a day by December’s end, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said, and a much higher number of deaths by the spring.
If people follow the new restrictions, the state should start seeing an improvement in case numbers by the end of the month, Levine said.
She also announced that with an expected federal vaccine approval coming — an FDA panel recommended the approval of Pfizer’s vaccine Thursday — state officials anticipate the first health-care workers will start receiving shots next week.
The measures reduce the occupancy for all retail to 50% of capacity. It was previously set at 75% for most businesses. Among the entertainment venues that must close are movie theaters, museums, bowling alleys, theaters, and concert venues.
In-person extracurricular school activities, such as plays, ensembles, and club meetings, and all K-12 indoor and outdoor sports activities are prohibited. Collegiate and professional sports teams are not affected. Gyms can run outdoor fitness classes.
Gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 50 outdoors. The limits do not apply to places of worship, but those are “strongly encouraged” to find alternatives to in-person worship.
Takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining will still be permitted at restaurants, bars, and other dining facilities. Wolf encouraged Pennsylvanians to patronize their local restaurants as often as possible.
In Philadelphia, where indoor dining was shut down last month, the city’s more restrictive rules remain in effect. Rivers Casino Philadelphia had also already closed under the city’s order; the state’s 12 other casinos will close by Saturday, the state gaming board said.
“We’re fighting for next year’s birthday celebrations. We’re fighting for next year’s family gatherings,” Wolf said. “We’re fighting for the special occasions and everyday moments we’re all missing so badly this year.”
Wolf, who announced Wednesday he had tested positive for the virus himself, said Thursday his most recent test was negative and he was awaiting another test result.
As restaurants once again bear the brunt of closures, owners and industry advocates said they were upset by the short notice and disputed whether closing restaurants was the right step to flatten the curve.
“Brutal,” said Pete Martin, an owner of Ardmore Music Hall and the Ripplewood in Ardmore. “You have to get this thing to zero, and everything would need to be shut down properly for a month for [that] to work. This is not going to do [anything] — just kick[s] the can forward at our expense.”
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said the state should put more effort into enforcing existing mandates, particularly for mask-wearing, before imposing new restrictions on businesses.
“You’re going to see a lot of people laid off … when they had just started to come back,” said Barr. “I think a lot of restaurants are going to throw in the towel.”
And many were particularly upset by the timing of the order, saying it would put people out of work during the holiday season.
“I want to scream how unfair it is, but instead we have 50 employees that depend on us to eat and provide for their family,” said Kim Strengari, an owner of restaurants in the Philadelphia suburbs, including Gypsy Saloon in Conshohocken. “We will continue to move forward with new ideas, a positive mind-set, and [we will] continue side hustles.”
Wolf acknowledged that the pandemic has been “crushing” for eateries. He cited data, which some restaurateurs disputed, from across the country showing that the virus spreads swiftly indoors, particularly when masks are not worn, saying that it was the virus, not his administration, that was forcing the closures.
He noted a particular risk exists in restaurants and bars because people cannot wear masks while eating and drinking.
“It’s unfair. We’re frustrated. It’s terrible,” he said. “But when we get together with other people, for whatever reason, it’s a real problem.”
Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, expressed frustration that the industry was taking another economic blow while receiving no additional financial or legislative support.
“We get that the virus is contagious. We get that the number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations are increasing,” he added. “What we don’t get is why our state government has asked the industry to sacrifice so much, but continues to sacrifice the industry.”
Healthcare workers have “this feeling like they’re just bailing water but there’s still a big hole at the bottom of the boat,” said Jaewon Ryu, president of Geisinger, a health system serving more than 3 million Pennsylvanians.
During the summer, less than 3% of tests administered by Geisinger were positive; now, about a quarter of all tests are positive, Ryu said. Its system is “at pretty close to 100%” full, and Ryu said the mitigation measures would help hospitals regain capacity and stabilize.
The orders drew praise from other health-care leaders, too.
“Governor Wolf’s decisive actions today will … reduce the strain on hospitals and health-care workers, many of whom are already at their breaking point,” said Antoinette Kraus, executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.
Philadelphia announced 937 newly confirmed cases and nine deaths Thursday, as the city marked nine months since its first confirmed case of the virus.
As of Thursday, there were 870 COVID-19 patients in Philadelphia hospitals, with 111 of them on ventilators.
New Jersey on Thursday reported 5,370 additional confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 68 additional deaths. Gov. Phil Murphy in a tweet called the numbers “alarming.”
“We need to hang on a little longer,” he said.