As Pennsylvania and New Jersey kept the lid on new COVID-19 cases while other parts of the country saw worrisome increases, area politicians wrestled Thursday with how to satisfy a long-repressed yearning among their constituents.
People just want to go out to eat.
Philadelphia will begin to allow outdoor dining on Friday for restaurants that have sidewalk cafe licenses, and it will open applications for other restaurants to begin offering seating on sidewalks, in parking spaces, or on temporarily closed streets, city officials said.
New Jersey restaurants can resume outdoor service on Monday as planned. But Gov. Phil Murphy faced criticism from restaurant owners who want to offer indoor seating as well, given that the state loosened restrictions this week on other indoor gatherings, such as church services. At a news conference, Murphy shot back at Asbury Park’s move to allow indoor restaurant service, vowing that the state would enforce its prohibition.
“We cannot have communities mirroring the cavalier actions in other states which have not put a premium on making the health of their residents priority number one," he said.
In Philadelphia, outdoor dining would technically have been permitted last week under state guidelines, when the city moved into the “yellow” phase of reopening. But the city took a more cautious approach in waiting until Friday.
Managing Director Brian Abernathy said outdoor dining in the city this summer will include a pilot program for closing a street for a weekend at a time — up to 60 hours — to allow for restaurant seating.
Restaurants also will be permitted to open seating on vacant lots and in parking lots, and to turn curbside parking into seating areas or takeout pickup locations. Those changes will require city permits; Abernathy said applications will open on Friday and officials will begin reviewing them on Monday. Officials said they will review applications within three days.
Pennsylvania announced 467 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, for a total of 77,313, while New Jersey reported 537 new cases, for a total of 165,816. When averaged over the previous seven days, New Jersey’s daily case counts have dipped below Pennsylvania’s for several days in a row, the first time that has happened during the pandemic.
Philadelphia identified 156 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.
While that number is higher than in previous days, Farley said, the city received a large number of test results and had a positive rate of 7%. That percentage is a positive sign, he said, as positive test rates peaked at 40% earlier in the pandemic.
The city now has recorded a total of 24,107 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,434 deaths, including one new death announced Thursday.
Hospitalizations due to the coronavirus have also decreased, Farley said Thursday, as have emergency room patients displaying symptoms of the virus. But it is still too soon to predict when Philadelphia may move into the “green” phase of reopening, he said.
“We will advance to green as soon as we feel there’s a safety level that makes us comfortable doing that,” he said.
Farley said it is still too early to tell how well businesses have complied with guidelines during the “yellow” phase, and said the city will continue to rely on businesses and residents voluntarily following guidelines because widespread enforcement would be a challenge.
While officials have been concerned about an increase in coronavirus cases due to crowds during protests last week, Farley said there are no indications that protests caused the virus to spread.
“It’s still early, we’re going to have to watch this for at least another week, but so far so good,” he said.
People are encouraged to get tested for the virus seven days after participating in a protest. The city’s testing capacity has continued to increase, Farley said.
“Testing has never been more available than it is right now in Philadelphia,” he said.
When people test positive, the city has started trying to identify and warn others who may have been exposed by those patients — a practice called contact tracing. So far that effort is “relatively small" but will increase, he said.
A resurgence in cases elsewhere is a reminder of the continued need to be cautious, said physician Val Arkoosh, chair of the board of commissioners in Montgomery County, which entered the “yellow” reopening phase a week ago.
She cited a rise in COVID-19 cases in such states as Arizona, Nevada, and South Carolina, which began to reopen last month.
“We are in good shape here, we are moving in the right direction,” she said Thursday. “But I just want to remind everybody that this could easily go the other way.”
Arkoosh said she hopes to transition to “green” by early July if the county maintains its downward trends.
In Bucks County, David C. Damsker, director of the county health department, was even more optimistic. The county’s number of COVID-19 cases seems to be holding steady at a low “baseline” number, potentially setting the stage for full reopening in a week, he said at a Thursday news conference.
“We do believe we’re ready to move to green as soon as the governor allows us," he said. “which could be as early as next Friday.”
Elsewhere, in a reminder by the coronavirus that we’re all animals, the microbe has attacked mink farms in the Netherlands. That in turn has led mink farmers in the United States — including in Pennsylvania — to double down on their precautions against the disease.
“We’re aware of what is happening in the Netherlands,” said Mark Stahl, a second-generation mink farmer in Sunbury, Pa., and a board member of the Fur Commission U.S.A. “We [mink farms] have a low risk. Not no risk. But even prior to the outbreak, we didn’t allow visitors. Now we do temperature checks of our workers when they start work.”
The Dutch initially rejected the shutdowns enforced by most countries and championed the controversial idea of “herd immunity” — building resistance to the virus by exposing the population to it. By April, COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in the Netherlands, which had one of the highest mortality rates in the world.
After the first mink infections were reported at two Dutch farms in late April, genetic testing and contact tracing linked the outbreaks to a farm worker who had COVID-19, according to Science magazine. But the surprising discovery was that at least two farm workers later contracted the infection from the furry creatures. Dutch authorities began euthanizing tens of thousands of minks on June 6.
Ethical concerns and marginal profitability have diminished Pennsylvania’s mink industry, which was never huge, to just a handful of farms, including Stahl’s.
Pennsylvania had 86,000 minks in 2017, compared with Wisconsin, the national leader with 1.1 million minks, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scientists have yet to pinpoint the source of the coronavirus, and Chinese officials no longer are saying it jumped to humans at a live animal market in Wuhan in December. Infections have been documented in cats, dogs, tigers, hamsters, and other animals since the pandemic began.