Warning of a predicted increase in hospitalizations and deaths, Philadelphia officials on Monday imposed new rules that ban indoor gatherings, close gyms, museums and other venues, and shut down indoor dining in the city’s first coronavirus clampdown since June.
Without changes, the fall-winter surge could be on track to cause about 1,700 deaths in the city before it ends, as many as occurred in the spring, said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, citing statistical modeling as he announced the restrictions.
“If we don’t do something to change the trajectory of this epidemic, the hospitals will become full, we’ll have difficulty treating people, and we’ll have between 700 and more than 1,000 deaths just by the end of this year,” Farley said, saying hospitalizations could exceed the first wave.
New Jersey, too, announced tighter restrictions on indoor and outdoor crowds Monday as the number of daily COVID-19 infections continued to soar.
Philadelphia and New Jersey join a handful of cities and states nationwide imposing new restrictions in response to the COVID-19 surge. Pennsylvania’s health secretary, meanwhile, said Monday that commonwealth officials have no plans to go back to “red, yellow, green, or any other type of schema” of coronavirus restrictions.
However, the state Department of Health is evaluating hospital capacity and anticipates “making further announcements this week,” a spokesperson told The Inquirer.
Philadelphia’s new guidance bans private and public indoor gatherings and also prohibits serving food and drink at outdoor gatherings, amounting to a ban on Thanksgiving celebrations in either setting for any group larger than a single household.
New Jersey is limiting all indoor gatherings to 10 people, and officials urged residents to keep Thanksgiving dinners as small as possible. Pennsylvania’s health secretary also asked residents to celebrate within their households.
With nearly 10,000 new infections reported in Pennsylvania between Sunday and Monday and New Jersey coming off a weekend that saw its two top highest counts of new daily cases ever, leaders across the region urged renewed intensity in the face of pandemic fatigue.
“Maybe you think people aren’t getting sick anymore or dying anymore,” said Gov. Phil Murphy, addressing younger people as he urged residents to pick up contact tracers' calls. “These are the cold facts. More and more people are fighting for their lives against COVID-19 as we sit here, and we are now seeing an increase in the numbers of people who are dying.”
The U.S. surpassed 11 million total confirmed cases on Sunday, as states including Michigan, Washington, North Dakota, New Mexico, and others implemented new rules.
Pennsylvania reported 4,476 additional confirmed cases, along with 5,199 cases recorded Sunday. The statewide positivity rate has increased to 9.6% from 6.8% last week, according to state data. Hospitalizations are also continuing a steady climb, with 2,440 people hospitalized with the coronavirus as of Monday, Levine said.
New Jersey reported 2,232 cases and 14 deaths. As of Monday, 2,115 people were hospitalized with the virus.
Philadelphia’s new measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 go into effect Friday and will remain in place until at least Jan. 1, city officials said.
The guidance closes indoor restaurant dining, gyms, and museums starting on Friday, in addition to banning indoor gathering. It also requires high schools and colleges to hold classes virtually, bans fans at sporting events, and requires office workers to operate remotely except when impossible. Outdoor restaurant dining can continue, but diners can only eat with members of their own households.
Barber shops and salons, retail stores, and hotels will be permitted to remain open, with safety measures in place such as reduced capacity and mask requirements. Construction work can continue, and elementary and middle schools and day cares can operate in-person. Religious institutions will be permitted to remain open with reduced density, but online-only services are encouraged.
Farley urged surrounding counties in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey to join Philadelphia in enacting similar measures, saying, “We all use the same hospitals. We all interact with each other.”
For restaurant owners, it presents another challenge after months of hardship. Some restaurateurs said they would temporarily close, while others met on a Monday video call to discuss potential relief mechanisms they may push for.
Some city gyms said they would suspend membership billing. Brian Terpak, who owns and operates the Steelworks Strength Systems in the city’s Brewerytown section, said he plans to offer some outdoor fitness classes and to rent out fitness equipment.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that is gripping not only my business but millions of others,” said Terpak, a former high school history teacher. “But if that’s what I have to do to help the rest of the world, then so be it.”
The announcement also rippled through the entertainment community.
Philadelphia Orchestra officials were conferring with the city to determine whether musicians will continue to perform together for the orchestra’s series of online-only concerts. The Philly Pops, which had planned to record a Christmas show, was working to determine whether the orchestra would have to record outside the city, said chief operating officer Karen Corbin.
In a joint statement, leaders of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Barnes Foundation, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts said the closure order was discouraging and asked for community support.
Larry Dubinski, head of the Franklin Institute, said separately that the closure, coming just before the holiday season, will be “devastating” and anticipated a loss of $500,000 just over the next six weeks.
The museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts won’t be able to open three new exhibitions that had been scheduled to debut Thursday.
“It’s a real pity,” said museum director Brooke Davis Anderson. “But as well as being nimble and disappointed, we also have to be optimistic. If the museum reopens after the new year, in the first week of January, these exhibitions would still have a three-month run … If we all put on a mask and we all limit our interactions with one another.”
Mayor Jim Kenney said he’d been engaged in difficult conversations about the economic impact of the restrictions, but said they were necessary.
“If we do this right, our businesses will recover faster because the epidemic wave will subside sooner,” Farley said, later adding: “A vaccine will be available in the coming months. We simply need to tide ourselves over until then.”
The order won’t have much impact on city colleges, which had already gone virtual or were planning to switch to remote instruction at Thanksgiving break.
Drexel University epidemiologist Michael LeVasseur said the city’s restrictions “were better late than never” but could have come sooner. Too many people, he said, are underestimating the risk of getting together with family and close friends.
“You look at weddings, you look at birthday parties … They’re well-meaning; I understand that they’re well-meaning, but we can’t do that,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if you can express my frustration in print, but it’s there.”
New Jersey will prohibit indoor gatherings of more than 10 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, Murphy announced Monday. The state Supreme Court also suspended criminal and civil jury trials and in-person grand jury sessions.
Religious services, political events, weddings and funerals are exempt from the new crowd rules, but must be limited to 25% of a room’s capacity or fewer than 150 people.
The indoor gathering rules go into effect Tuesday, and the limit on outdoor crowds Nov. 23. Previously, 25 people could gather inside and 500 outside.
“We’re urging everybody to keep their Thanksgiving plans as small as possible," Murphy said. "The smaller the gathering is, the less likely it is that someone is infected.”
Public health experts told The Inquirer they were worried about the holiday, and discouraged travel.
“My own big fear, and the fear of a lot of public health folks, is people will take their biggest risks over Thanksgiving and over the December holidays,” said Leslie Kantor, a professor of public health at Rutgers University. “I would love if everyone would decide right now that they’re going to replicate those holidays in July.”