‘We are already at a tipping point,’ Wolf says, as Pa. imposes new health restrictions on bars and restaurants

Governor Tom Wolf at a March 12 press conference announcing Pennsylvania's new COVID-19 response strategies. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

(*This story was updated at 5:53 p.m. on Wednesday 7/15/20 with new reporting from Gov. Tom Wolf’s press conference and other information.)

Issuing a grave warning about the potential for a serious surge of COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a new set of restrictions on Pennsylvania’s bars, restaurants, nightclubs and workplaces that will take effect Thursday – steps he said are necessary to protect children and staff returning to school in September.

The order, which calls for most bars and nightclubs to close, and for restaurants to further limit indoor dining, comes as Pennsylvania tries to beat back a month-long climb in COVID-19 cases.

“Medical experts looking at our current trajectory are projecting that [the] new surge that we are seeing now could be worse than before,” Wolf said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters in suburban Harrisburg. “We’re already at a tipping point.”

COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in Pennsylvania since mid-June, and this week reached heights not seen since May. The Department of Health reported 994 new cases on Wednesday. Since March, nearly 7,000 Pennsylvanians have died. 

Wolf attributed the spike to interstate travel, as well as poor coordination by the federal government that led to dramatic surges in states such as Arizona, Florida, California and Texas, where tens of thousands of new cases each day are straining hospitals and intensive care units.  

“This virus does not respect state boundaries, and we are paying the price for what states have not done,” Wolf said. 

But Wolf also said that Pennsylvanians have contributed to the spread by failing to wear masks in bars and restaurants. 

The administration based its new mitigation order on disease models from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab, which found that COVID-19 was spreading northward from southern hotspots in Florida and Texas. 

Those models show “incontrovertible evidence that the resurgence [is] coming” to Pennsylvania, Dr. Dave Rubin, the lab’s director, said at the press conference. “It is very clear that disease resurgence is moving quickly into the Northeast region and to the west.”

Rubin said Pennsylvania had to take decisive action to allow schools to reopen this fall. 

How will Pennsylvania schools reopen this fall? Your questions, answered

 

Surges in the south have already complicated school reopenings in states such as Maryland, where officials in a large suburban district in Prince George’s County announced Wednesday that they would not return to in-person classes in fall.

“All of our school reopening plans are based on keeping disease transmission down, to give the public confidence they can put their kids on a school bus,” come fall, Rubin said. 

The statewide order represents Wolf’s first walk back in Pennsylvania’s reopening plan, which began to take effect in stages starting in May.

Under the administration’s new order bars, and restaurants must limit their indoor dining capacity to 25 percent and ban on-site alcohol sales unless patrons are also buying food. 

That means that nightclubs and bars that don’t offer food menus will have to close their doors indefinitely, Wolf said. Those establishments were already excluded from temporary rules that allow for the sale of carryout mixed drinks.

Wolf’s new order, which lasts indefinitely, still allows restaurants to offer outdoor dining. It does not place new restrictions on gyms, hair salons and casinos, though casinos can no longer offer free drinks to patrons. 

The order also prohibits indoor events with more than 25 people and outdoor events with more than 250, and requires businesses to have their employees telework if they are able. 

The order Wolf issued earlier this month, requiring masks in public places, will also remain in effect. 

Wolf and state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said that masks and social distancing will allow Pennsylvania to avoid a calamitous surge that could overwhelm its healthcare systems. 

Wolf argued that the order was targeted to prevent crowded social events. Bars and restaurants and across the commonwealth have been open at half capacity for the past weeks as the state reopened from the initial wave of COVID-19.

Dr. Krys Johnson, a Temple University epidemiology professor who thought the state moved too quickly with its reopening plans, said the steps Wolf outlined Wednesday “are 100 percent necessary and can indeed keep our new case numbers down.”

Johnson said that COVID-19 testing in Pennsylvania has not expanded fast enough to account for the uptick in cases. The state has increased its testing throughout June and July, but Department of Health data show tests still fall far short of the benchmarks prescribed by Harvard University researchers earlier this spring. 

Johnson also that lax restrictions in other states could still undermine Pennsylvania’s  mitigation efforts. 

The new restrictions could be a tipping point, however, for the state’s beleaguered bars and restaurants, which closed their doors for at least two months during Wolf’s original COVID-19 mediation efforts.

“Without help, we will see more small business restaurants and taverns not survive,” Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said in a statement Wednesday.

He called for the commonwealth to waive state fees associated with running a bar or restaurant, provide state liquor sale discounts, and additional financial assistance. 

The latter decision would likely fall to Wolf and the GOP-controlled General Assembly to hammer out. 

In a statement, legislative Republicans continued to assail Wolf’s executive authority. 

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said that Wednesday’s announcement should “require input and thoughtful deliberation” from lawmakers.

Earlier this month, a Republican effort to force Wolf to end the shutdown was rejected by the state Supreme Court.

A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday found that roughly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians thought Wolf had done a very good or somewhat good job of managing the pandemic. 

Pa. health chief says state is ‘doing well’ on contact tracing as counties reopen. But others fear we’re lagging