With coronavirus cases skyrocketing, Philadelphia officials are weighing new restrictions that could stop indoor dining, close gyms and theaters, ban indoor gatherings, and ask companies to return office employees to remote work, according to people briefed on a potential plan by Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration Friday.
Retail stores, barbershops, and salons would be permitted to remain open — with enforcement of mask-wearing and limited capacity — and construction work would also continue. But the city would prohibit public and private indoor gatherings of any size.
The potential restrictions would not be as strict as the spring lockdown, but they would be the first to come after a gradual reopening that gave residents some freedom to return to restaurants, bars and fitness facilities, resume SEPTA commutes, venture back to offices, and gather with others.
Kenney administration spokesperson Lauren Cox acknowledged Friday that officials had shared proposals with stakeholders, but said plans are not yet final. The city has scheduled a news conference for Monday afternoon.
“The intention of the briefing was to get feedback on proposals that could possibly be adjusted before implementation,” Cox said. “As such, we will not have final information and cannot confirm anything until Monday.”
With infections mounting, hospitalizations rising, and the entire country under renewed pressure as the virus' spread surpasses spring levels, the restrictions under consideration by Philadelphia officials could portend a shift in strategy against the fall surge.
City officials have said for the past few weeks that they were considering additional restrictions, but thus far had not implemented any; nor has the state. Public health leaders have asked residents to cut down on social interaction to stop the spread and avoid shutdowns.
The city reported 1,158 new cases of the coronavirus Friday — breaking previous daily case-count highs set earlier this week and recording more than 1,000 cases in a single day for the first time.
Pennsylvania reported more than 5,000 new cases of the coronavirus for the second straight day, again breaking its single-day record.
The city could impose a ban on indoor dining as soon as next week, and restaurant owners were bracing for it.
“We’re all mentally prepared for it, but when it actually happens it’s difficult,” said Nicholas Elmi, whose restaurants include Laurel and Royal Boucherie. “We’ve been talking about it for the last month and telling our employees, ‘Make sure you’re saving your money.’”
They weren’t the only ones considering new restrictions: Montgomery County announced it would close all K-12 schools for two weeks starting Nov. 23. And some school officials in Camden County said they were keeping an eye on the case numbers, particularly in Haddonfield, where 136 students were asked this week to stay home because of possible exposure.
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. urged residents to stay home as much as possible, citing case increases.
The U.S. saw more than 140,000 new cases reported on Thursday and more than 3,300 deaths in the last two days, according to Johns Hopkins University. And a new wave of restrictions was beginning: New Mexico’s governor imposed a temporary stay-at-home order and Oregon announced a two-week “freeze,” closing certain in-person businesses and limiting capacities.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s best-known public health expert, said Friday that the cooling weather makes controlling the pandemic’s spread “very problematic,” particularly as people congregate indoors more and give in to fatigue.
“We want to just plead with [people] to understand the dynamics of this outbreak,” he said on CBS This Morning, warning new cases would “continue to soar” if people disregard protective measures. “If we do the things that are simple public health measures, that soaring will level and start to come down.”
In the last two weeks, 51,500 people in Pennsylvania have become infected with COVID-19 — representing a fifth of all cases from the last eight months. The average number of new cases a day has more than doubled in that time. On Friday, the state reported 5,531 cases and 30 deaths.
Hospitalizations are rising along with case numbers: Since Monday, the number of people in the hospital with the virus has jumped by 580 in Pennsylvania and 372 in New Jersey.
“These numbers speak for themselves,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on Twitter, reporting 3,399 new cases and 28 deaths Friday. “Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands. Stay safe.”
The anxiety over growing case numbers overflowed at a rally at Philadelphia School District headquarters on Friday, where teachers, parents, and community members demanded a say in the school system’s reopening plan.
“Don’t ask anyone to return until it’s safe,” said parent Tonya Bah. “Not now, not ever.”
Philadelphia officials are also weighing requiring high schools and colleges to conduct virtual learning while allowing middle schools and elementary schools, along with child-care centers, to continue in person, according to several sources and a PowerPoint slide obtained by The Inquirer that listed some of the restrictions the Kenney administration is considering.
It was not clear Friday whether the city was weighing a more stringent remote-work requirement or new enforcement, which could potentially impact thousands of workers who have returned at least part-time. The PowerPoint slide suggested office workers should operate from home “unless not possible.”
Office-based businesses were permitted to have workers return starting in June, but the city asked them to continue remote work when possible. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has urged companies in recent weeks to have employees work from home as contact tracing has found evidence of the virus spreading among coworkers in offices.
About 61% of Philadelphia’s major downtown office-occupying businesses had at least some workers back to the cubicles in mid-October, according to a report from the Center City District; of those, 16% had more than half of staff back.
In New Jersey, more than 38,000 people have tested positive in the last two weeks, 17,804 of them since Sunday. On Thursday night, Murphy signed an executive order giving municipalities and counties the ability to impose nightly curfews on nonessential businesses if needed to help prevent the spread.
“Our approach to this second wave is to act surgically within hot spot areas,” he said, “and that means giving local officials the ability to take action to prevent local hot spots from becoming COVID wildfires.”
Asked whether New Jersey may limit indoor gatherings further, Murphy said “all options are on the table.” The ban on out-of-state youth sports travel that went into effect Thursday was also adopted by the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
In Newark, where new restrictions went into effect Thursday, Mayor Ras Baraka said the case spikes were largely due to pandemic fatigue.
“People began to relax because we were doing so well. … They lost track of where we were,” Baraka said during an interview on CNN Friday morning. “And more asymptomatic people are getting infected and infecting their entire families. So we have whole families that are getting sick.”