With the state gripped by the surge in coronavirus cases, Pennsylvania officials rolled out a wave of new restrictions and mitigation measures Monday in their latest bid to keep schools safe, hospitals from running out of beds, and bars from becoming super-spreaders over the looming holiday break.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration issued a statewide stay-at-home advisory and said “unless impossible” all businesses should operate remotely and allow employees to telework as soon as Friday — although Wolf emphasized that it was not a shutdown order. With more than 3,000 coronavirus patients hospitalized in the commonwealth, health officials announced new triggers for when hospitals must cut elective surgeries to free up beds. And nearly all public schools must pledge to follow safety protocols or shut down in-person learning.
“The commonwealth is in a precarious place right now,” Wolf said at a news briefing. “We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to save lives.”
The additional steps and the urgency surrounding them stemmed not only from the state’s skyrocketing numbers — hospitalizations and daily case numbers are much higher than during the spring COVID-19 surge — but also from the concern that the Thanksgiving holiday is likely to accelerate its spread.
State officials had already advised against gathering with anyone outside one’s immediate household, but Wolf ordered restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, effectively closing them on what some say can be their busiest night of the year.
The governor acknowledged he wasn’t happy about clamping down on “the biggest day for drinking,” but called it a necessary step for preventing sickness now and eventually getting back to a life where “we can go to bars anytime we want.”
The state on Monday also said counties and municipalities are authorized to enforce its pandemic orders. Businesses must enforce mask orders, and the state granted them immunity from civil liability when doing so. And all municipalities can now implement their own mitigation orders — as long as they are stricter than those mandated by the state.
As hospitalizations soared, 545 residents died of the virus last week. Statewide, the test positivity rate reached a fall high of 11%, meaning more than one in every 10 people tested for the virus were found to have it.
The surge is also accelerating around the country, which surpassed 12 million known cases on Saturday and is averaging about 170,000 new cases a day. Despite guidance from federal and state officials asking Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving, more than three million people took flights over the last three days, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
Philadelphia officials on Monday reiterated their pleas for residents to forgo Thanksgiving gatherings with extended family members and friends.
“Breaking bread and giving thanks via Zoom or other online video platforms is still the safest way to celebrate,” Mayor Jim Kenney’s office said in a statement.
The city reported 2,412 new cases had been confirmed for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Pennsylvania reported 4,762 new cases and 28 deaths on Monday and reported 7,075 cases and 41 deaths on Sunday.
New Jersey reported 3,592 new cases and 11 deaths. The positivity rate was 8.65% last Thursday, Gov. Phil Murphy said.
New restrictions limiting most outdoor gatherings to 150 people in New Jersey took effect Monday. Murphy said the state would send more test kits and contact tracers to hardest-hit parts of the state and health officials pledged to monitor cases particularly closely after Thanksgiving to see if gatherings led to further spikes.
“We’re now back at a place we haven’t seen in many months,” Murphy said.
Hospitals, schools under new measures
One “very, very concerning” model from the University of Washington put Pennsylvania on track to possibly run out of Intensive Care Unit beds within the week, but most of the commonwealth’s health-care regions appeared to be “doing very well,” said Health Secretary Rachel Levine.
Still, the administration announced new metrics that would require hospitals to cut back on elective procedures by 50% if their region starts to become overburdened.
That requirement will be triggered if a region meets two or more metrics: a third or more of its hospitals are anticipating staffing shortages within the following week, the average number of hospital admissions increases by more than 50% in two days, or fewer than 10% of all medical/surgical beds in the region are anticipated to be free in the next three days.
The Hospital Association of Pennsylvania said the state’s hospitals had an adequate capacity to handle the surge. But, president and CEO Andy Carter said in a statement, “We also wholly agree with the Governor and the Secretary that Pennsylvanians can help us limit growth in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations by wearing a mask, social distancing, and restricting gatherings as much as possible.”
» Here are Philly’s current COVID-19 guidelines: inquirer.com/phillyguidelines
The administration’s requirement for schools to pledge they are following to coronavirus safety protocols — such as wearing masks and taking required steps when a case is identified — applies to all public schools in any county that has “substantial” transmission for at least two weeks. As of Monday, that covers 63 of the state’s 67 counties, including all those in the Philadelphia region.
Schools must sign the form by Monday or move to all-virtual instruction. The state’s guidance already recommends any school in a county rated as having substantial transmission close all in-person learning, but many have not done so. The state will continue to allow school districts to make their own decisions about how to deliver instruction, though Levine said the guidance had not changed.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association said Monday’s move aimed at requiring schools to enforce strict safety rules was a “step in the right direction.”
“PSEA continues to call on school district leaders to follow all of the state’s public health guidelines without exception,” president Rich Askey said in a statement.
Stepping up enforcement
For restaurant and bar owners, the ban on Wednesday night alcohol sales was “yet another blow to our industry,” said Teddy Sourias, who owns five bars and restaurants in Philadelphia, including Tradesman’s and Finn McCool’s. “Every single day of sales counts right now, and they take away another day.”
Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, called the announcement “bad news” for the industry.
He praised Wolf for granting immunity to businesses enforcing mask rules, but decried a lack of “significant financial help” for the state’s struggling taverns and restaurants. “As this crisis continues,” he said in a statement, “more small businesses are closing while their employees lose jobs.”
Wolf said the state would step up enforcement of mask-wearing, business and restaurant safety, gathering limits, testing for out-of-state travelers, and other pandemic orders. State and local law enforcement and some other state personnel can hand out warnings or citations, and people may be fined between $25 and $300 for failing to comply.
Businesses not enforcing mask-wearing or other requirements will also be warned, temporarily closed, or fined, Levine said.
The state’s maximum limits on crowd sizes were lowered to 500 for indoor gatherings and 2,500 for outdoors. Venues with smaller capacities have lower limits.
The effort to increase enforcement and the move to allow localities to make their own stricter rules came after Delaware County leaders called on Wolf to impose more statewide restrictions. The new move will empower counties without health departments, like Delaware, to set their own rules.
Despite the additional measures, Wolf said he did not have plans to return to the tiered, color-coded system used during the spring lockdown.
“I can’t foresee every possible eventuality, but I can’t think that that would make any sense,” he said. “We’re trying to balance the needs of a very fragile economy with the need for all of us to keep safe … I want to do everything I can to keep from trashing the economy the way we did back in March and April and at the same time [keep] people safe.”
Staff writers Sean Collins Walsh, Allison Steele, and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.