Wolf admin.: Pa. to lift COVID-19 restrictions by Memorial Day; mask order once 70 percent of adults are vaccinated

    A Berks County school system employee gets the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, 3/15/21 (Commonwealth Media Services screen capture)

    (*This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 5/4/21 to include additional comment from House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association. It was further clarified to note that the administration’s announcement does not apply to Philadelphia, which has its own mitigation rules.)

    The Wolf administration said Tuesday that will lift its COVID-19 restrictions by Memorial Day, on May 31, except for its mask mandate, which will be lifted when 70 percent of Pennsylvanians aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated.

    The state now requires people to wear masks indoors and outdoors if they’re away from home. But in accordance with orders from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, fully vaccinated Pennsylvanians are not required to wear a mask during certain activities, the administration said in a statement.

    “We continue to make significant progress in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 and as more Pennsylvania adults get vaccinated and guidance from the CDC evolves, we can continue to move forward with our reopening efforts,” ​acting state Health Alison Beam said in a statement. “I encourage Pennsylvanians to take the critical steps needed to put this pandemic behind us by getting vaccinated, follow through with both doses if you receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and continue to take steps like masking, frequent hand washing and sanitizing and social distancing.”

    The administration’s announcement does not impact Philadelphia, which has its own COVID-19 mitigation measures. According to WHYY-FM, “any municipality or school district can continue to implement stricter restrictions after 12:01 a.m. on May 31 if they so choose.”

    On Tuesday, health officials announced they had administered 8.7 million vaccinations, and had given first doses of the vaccination to 50.6 percent of the eligible population, putting the state 10th nationwide for first doses. The state also announced 3,133 new cases of COVID-19, with 2,151 people hospitalized statewide.

    States with higher vaccine demand will be able to request more from the feds

    “With millions of Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated, it’s time to plan the transition back to normal,” said Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, a member of the administration’s bipartisan COVID-19 task force. Hospitalizations and deaths are down. This action today is a key step forward.”

    Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, who’s also a member of the task force, said Tuesday’s action will “help grow our economy and assist our small businesses that have sacrificed so much due to COVID-19. Thank you to Pennsylvanians who have chosen to be vaccinated. Your efforts have helped us arrive at today.”

    On Monday, the New York Times and other news outlets reported that the federal Food & Drug Administration would soon authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents ages 12-15. Those young people could be eligible to receive the shots as early as next week, according to media reports.

    On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced that he’d set a new goal, calling for 70 percent of U.S. adults to receive at least one shot by July 4, and for 160 million Americans to get both shots by that date. Reaching that goal would require roughly 100 million additional shots during the next two months, according to his administration, the Capital-Star’s Washington Reporter Laura Olson reported.

    Democrat Wolf’s mitigation orders often put him at odds with Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly, sparking a legislative fight that sparked a proposed constitutional amendment limiting the emergency powers of Wolf and his successors. Pennsylvanians will get their say on that ballot question during the May 18 primary.

    In a statement, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, alluded to those legislative pitched battles, saying that while Tuesday’s announcement was “undoubtedly [welcome] news for a Commonwealth that has suffered for far too long under unilateral and often confusing mitigation orders that have done untold damage to our children’s education, our economy and Pennsylvania’s future. Unfortunately for many hard-working Pennsylvanians trying to live the American dream, this announcement might come too late.”

    State residents, he added have “had to not only endure the health impacts and threats of a global pandemic, but have also struggled through government mitigation orders that picked winners and losers and unfairly targeted certain industries over others.”

    Benninghoff’s sentiment was reflected by the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, which represents saloon-keepers around the state. The last 14 months, “have been some of the worst in industry history. There are countless stories of financial ruin and jobs lost.”

    The industry group thanked the Legislature for its assistance, but also offered hearty thanks to patrons who kept their favorite watering holes going during the pandemic by buying gift cards or by ordering take-out.

    “As many tavern owners know, it was the support of patrons ordering take-out or buying gift cards during the roughest days of mitigation orders that allowed many establishments to keep their heads above water,” the industry group said.

    House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, pushed back, arguing that the “tough decisions made by the Wolf administration in the last 14 months saved thousands of lives in Pennsylvania.”

    “These new changes in May are an important step forward but we still have work to do – and the most important thing is getting as many people vaccinated as possible,” she said.

    John L. Micek
    A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press