Philadelphia on Tuesday said it will loosen its coronavirus restrictions to allow crowds of up to 7,500 people at the city’s largest outdoor venues, a step that will put thousands of Eagles fans back in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, even as the region sees the daily average of new cases tick higher.
The new standards, which will take effect Friday, also increase the indoor gathering limit to a maximum of 250 people for large venues but lower the existing 25-person limit for some smaller venues.
The Eagles immediately announced ticket sales for Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens but said tailgating would be prohibited. Temple University said Tuesday the family of players and coaches would be permitted to attend Saturday’s game against South Florida at the Linc, and tickets would be sold for future games.
The city reported an average of 158 new confirmed cases per day for the week that ended Saturday, and 4.5% of people who were tested had positive results. Those numbers represent increases from the previous week, and the highest case counts since mid-July, according to city data sorted by date of testing.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s daily case average continued to climb, reaching its highest point since the end of April, according to an Inquirer data analysis. The commonwealth reported 1,342 new coronavirus cases and 16 deaths on Tuesday.
New Jersey, likewise experiencing an increase in transmission, reported 993 cases and seven deaths. New infections in Delaware were slowing slightly this week, though an increase in cases from August was driving a new increase in hospitalizations, state health officials said.
As the city prepares for a potential second wave with winter approaching, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley warned he would reimpose stricter capacity limits if the coronavirus began spreading more rapidly or at events.
“Especially with the cooler weather and the dryer weather, if the virus is spreading more, we may have to go to a much more restrictive mode,” he said.
Philadelphia’s new rules for gatherings allow occupancy at varying percentages based on the size of a venue and whether it is indoors or outdoors. An indoor theater with 300 seats, for example, could have up to 10% capacity, or 30 people. And an outdoor stadium with 10,000 seats could host a maximum of 15% capacity, or 1,500 people. The previous limit for outdoor gatherings was 250.
The city’s decision was based on evidence that the virus does not spread as easily outside as it does indoors, Mayor Jim Kenney said. Changing the city’s 25-person limit on indoor gatherings to 10% of a venue’s capacity could mean just 10 or 15 people for certain places.
“Despite the fact that we’d like to be more easygoing with the indoor events, the indoor events are where people get sick,” Kenney said. “We cannot in good conscience put people in a facility we know is going to give them more of a chance to get sick.”
Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said he was disappointed in the city’s announcement.
“When you go to restaurants, hotels, and event places, they are enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing,” he said. “Without allowing us to host these parties safely, people are still going to gather, but they’re going to do it in an unsafe way.”
Even with higher occupancy limits — up to 250 for the largest venues — many of the city’s indoor entertainment venues said the new rule would not help them reopen.
“When you think of the types of things we offer, Broadway and a popular mix, those things are so expensive that we couldn’t afford to present them with so small an audience,” said Anne Ewers, president and CEO of the Kimmel Center, which includes the 2,500-seat Verizon Hall, the 2,900-seat Academy of Music, and the Perelman Theater, with about 600 seats. “You really need a full house to do those things.”
LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, which markets the region’s theaters, said the new guidelines won’t help: If it’s a 300-seat theater, “you’re halfway into your 30 people with staff and performers, unless it’s a one-person show,” she said.
Bryan Buttler, publicist for the Wilma Theater and the Arden Theatre — which both remain closed to live audiences, but are screening productions online — echoed the impossibility of reopening. He said many in the industry are “coming to the reality” that live theater won’t return until 2021.
Still, “it doesn’t help public perception,” Buttler said of the new rules. “I think sometimes people hear … well, the Eagles are opening this week; why can’t the theaters? Well, that’s a whole different ballgame — we’re talking a huge stadium vs. 300 seats or 200 seats.”
The city’s rules are more restrictive than the new state guidance that Gov. Tom Wolf issued last week, though the 7,500-person maximum outdoor crowd limit is the same for both the city and state. Officials have said they need to take extra precautions in Philadelphia because it is the largest and most densely populated city in the state — and the hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Under the state’s relaxed rules, about 5,000 fans sat in the stands at the 68,400-seat Heinz Field in Pittsburgh when the Eagles played the Steelers on Sunday, according to the Steelers. The Philadelphia Union also welcomed 2,775 fans back into their Chester stadium, which can hold 18,000.
The limits include participants or athletes, staff, and spectators. For the Eagles, that means between 5,500 and 6,000 fans would be permitted to attend each game, the team said. For Lincoln Financial Field, which seats more than 69,000, that means about 8% of its seats will be filled.
Masks and social distancing will be required at all gatherings, and venues must tape or block off seats to prevent attendees from sitting less than six feet away from anyone outside their own household, city officials said. Kenney said he trusts the Eagles to enforce the measures.
“It’s in the Eagles’ best interest to have this go off without a hitch, and I’m confident they can do that,” he said.