The Lead

Pa. eases limits on large gatherings as one-year anniversary of pandemic approaches

By: - March 1, 2021 1:57 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf wears a mask during a briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management headquarters in Harrisburg. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Pennsylvania eased restrictions limiting the size of large gatherings on Monday, a sign of cautious optimism as the state sees a declining number of new COVID-19 cases and a growing vaccine supply. 

Under a revised public health order signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, indoor event venues will be allowed to admit crowds that fill up to 15 percent of their maximum occupancy, while outdoor venues will be limited to 20 percent capacity. 

Event organizers must enforce mask-wearing and social distancing. 

Since November, gatherings in Pennsylvania had been capped at 500 people in indoor spaces and 2,500 people outdoors, regardless of the size of the event venue.

On Monday, Wolf also eliminated a restriction that had required travelers entering Pennsylvania from other states to quarantine for 14 days unless they tested negative for COVID-19

That requirement had also been in place since November. But the Wolf administration never outlined plans to enforce it, and did not provide support – such as meals, accommodation or wages for missed work – to people required to quarantine. 

The relaxed rules come as Pennsylvania enters the third month of its vaccine rollout. Roughly 2.1 million people in the state have been inoculated against COVID-19 since mid-December, Department of Health data show. A third of them – 739,252 – have received the second doses necessary to complete the two-dose immunization. 

In a press release his office issued Monday, Wolf said the decision to roll back some parts of his public health order was based on the state’s vaccination uptake rate, its hospital capacity, and its downward trend of new COVID-19 cases. 

But Wolf said Pennsylvanians still have reason to exercise caution. 

While the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have both fallen from their peaks in December, the state is also collecting less testing data, figures  from the investigative news website Spotlight PA show. Hospitalizations, while declining, also remain at levels on par with Pennsylvania’s first case surge last April.

New virus variants are also emerging worldwide, and research indicates they could drive up transmission and compromise the efficacy of vaccines

“Pennsylvania is taking a measured approach to revising or lifting mitigation orders,” Wolf said. “The reason we are seeing cases drop can be attributed, in part, to people following the mitigation efforts we have in place. Mask-wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene are making a difference and need to continue even as we see more and more people fully vaccinated.”

State health officials have expressed hope that vaccinations will accelerate in March as manufacturers ramp up supply of federally approved vaccine doses. The Food and Drug Administration authorized a new vaccine over the weekend, developed by Johnson & Johnson, which should start flowing to states this week. 

Unlike the other two vaccines on the market, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose and does not need hyper-cold refrigeration. Health officials hope this will make it easier to administer injections and staff mass vaccination clinics. 

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.