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Philly to extend ban on high-risk indoor activities as officials anticipate holiday case surge

Philadelphia will also keep its restrictions on indoor gatherings, theaters, and casinos in place until at least Jan. 15.

(From left) Adam Aponte, Andrea Di Federico, and Frances Yeomans at Moriarty's on the last night of indoor dining prior to the start of renewed coronavirus restrictions in Philadelphia in November.
(From left) Adam Aponte, Andrea Di Federico, and Frances Yeomans at Moriarty's on the last night of indoor dining prior to the start of renewed coronavirus restrictions in Philadelphia in November.Read moreJessica Griffin / File Photograph

Philadelphia is extending its ban on indoor dining to combat an expected rise in coronavirus cases as officials anticipate people will ignore warnings against celebrating the holidays with those outside their immediate households.

Philadelphia’s restrictions were scheduled to be lifted Jan. 1, but Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said higher-risk indoor activities, such as dining, organized sports, gatherings, theaters, casinos and college classes will remain banned until Jan. 15. Some activities, however, are expected to be able to resume Jan. 4, including museums, outdoor sports, gyms, outdoor catered events, and in-person high school classes.

City officials say the extension is critical in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s, when residents may still travel and see friends and family and spread the virus, despite pleas from public health leaders to avoid holiday gatherings.

“This is still a very high risk period and we have the holidays coming up,” Farley said. “We can’t afford to have more case spikes like that Thanksgiving spike.”

Cases overburdened hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units across the region in the weeks after Thanksgiving.

Despite the spike, hundreds of small businesses have organized to defy the statewide indoor dining ban. And a protest over Philadelphia’s cancellation of large events is planned for New Year’s Day, when the Mummers traditionally parade down Broad Street.

Roughly 6,100 Pennsylvania patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 Tuesday afternoon, more than double the springtime peak. Of those patients, one in five were being treated in intensive care units and 772 were on ventilators.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health also reported 231 additional deaths from the virus on Tuesday, marking the sixth time in eight days that there have been more than 200 coronavirus deaths.

While the rate of new daily cases in the Philadelphia region is decreasing, state and local officials expect another rise after the holidays. In Delaware, officials warned that the state’s health care system can’t afford another holiday spike.

There was an average of 581 new cases per day in Philadelphia for the week that ended Saturday, Farley said, lower than the previous week’s average of 905. However, the positivity rate — or percent of tests coming back positive — was 8.1%, exceeding the 5% benchmark that epidemiologists say indicates a troubling level of community spread.

Officials reiterated the importance of limiting gatherings.

“We know that’s really difficult during this holiday season. That goes against all of our traditions,” Farley said. ”You don’t want to pass on COVID to your grandma. Don’t make that mistake when we’re so close to the finish line.”

Vaccinations continue

Although continued vaccinations across the region bring hope, Farley warned it will be months before the general population has widespread access to the shot.

By mid-January, Philadelphia officials expect that 130,000 coronavirus vaccines will have been administered in the city. There are more than 100,000 health-care workers and nursing home residents and staff members who are slated to receive the vaccine first.

“Unfortunately,” Farley said, “that’s still a very small fraction of a city of 1.6 million people.”

More than 9,000 people received the first of two vaccine doses in the past week.

Starting next week, Farley said, nursing home residents and staff members will begin receiving the Pfizer vaccine. Then, the city’s 50,000 essential workers — including teachers, police officers, firefighters, grocery store workers, and postal service workers — will be eligible to receive the vaccine in late January. Older residents and people with health conditions will be part of the third group to receive the vaccine.

“Overall, it’s going to take a long time,” Farley said. “It probably will be months until the vaccine is widely available to people who don’t meet those specific categories.”

Defying orders

Hundreds of small businesses across the commonwealth have organized online to flout the orders since the restrictions from the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf took effect. The restrictions apply to indoor dining, gym operations, and theaters across Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania agents issued closure orders to 40 restaurants last week that defied the state’s ban on indoor dining and refused to comply, officials said Tuesday. Of those orders, 10 were in Berks County. The rest of the closure orders were scattered through the state, with none in the southeastern region outside Philadelphia (The city has its own restrictions and enforcement).

The Department of Agriculture Bureau of Food Safety also issued 180 warnings to establishments they believed were violating the indoor dining ban.

Some owners who planned to stay open through the ban told The Inquirer last week that they would not close their doors, even if they were issued a closure order. The state said restaurants that do not comply with a closure order will be referred to the Department of Health “for further legal action.”

Meanwhile, about 2,600 people had indicated on Facebook as of Tuesday that they plan a South Philadelphia event to protest the city’s cancellation of large events, including the annual Mummers Parade.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who was once a Mummer, said he hoped those who choose to gather will wear masks, “and not breathe all over each other.”

“We hope everybody’s safe,” he said. “That’s the only thing that I am concerned about as mayor.”