Health Secretary Levine explains why Pa. ordered restaurants to limit capacity, but still won’t show the data to back it up

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine speaking to the press on Thursday, July 23. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Pennsylvania’s top health official said Thursday that data collected by state contract tracers, and guidance issued by the White House, influenced Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent decision to limit business at bars, restaurants and nightclubs as Pennsylvania tries to curb a spike in COVID-19 cases.

But state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has so far declined to make public the state data that guided the new mitigation effort, even though media outlets and restaurant industry leaders have asked to see it.

“Individuals in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are congregating in groups, particularly in restaurants, bars, nightclubs,” Levine said Thursday. “There is granular data about that, although we’re not going to release [it.]”

Levine’s briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters was her first since Wolf issued an executive order last week shuttering many bars and nightclubs, and ordering restaurants to reduce indoor dining capacity.

The order was met with outrage from the state’s beleaguered restaurant industry, which called on lawmakers to pass a bailout package and urged the administration to prove that restaurants were driving Pennsylvania’s month-long surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Levine said Thursday that the federal government has urged states to clamp down on bars and restaurants as the nation battles a summertime surge in COVID-19 cases.

She said the mitigation order Wolf issued last week follows “exactly the type of mitigation steps” recommended by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which this week identified Pittsburgh as one of 11 cities nationwide that must take “aggressive action” to curb COVID-19 outbreaks.  

Levine also said Department of Health contact tracers, who are charged with investigating COVID-19 cases and alerting people when they’ve been exposed to a contagious patient, have traced COVID-19 cases back to bars and restaurants. 

However, state officials have so far declined to follow the lead of health officials in Allegheny County, who published contact tracing data this week showing bars and restaurants were a leading source of local COVID-19 transmission.

A television reporter who attended Thursday’s briefing said the administration denied his request to see similar data from the state. Levine said officials would “consider” releasing the information in an aggregate format, but did not want to implicate specific establishments that may have contributed to the spread of COVID-19. 

The Wolf administration has faced criticism from state lawmakers and the press over its handling of public records requests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The General Assembly unanimously passed a bill rebuking a Wolf policy that allowed state agencies to delay responding to records requests while state offices were closed this spring.

Wolf has pledged to veto it.

More recently, administration officials have been tight-lipped about the state’s efforts to jumpstart the development of rapid-turnaround COVID-19 testing – a project that Wolf has said would make the state less reliant on backlogged national testing chains.

Pennsylvania has reported an average of 14,000 COVID-19 tests per day over the last week, according to state data analyzed by the investigative news site Spotlight PA. 

The vast majority of those tests are processed by commercial laboratories such as Quest Diagnostics, which is currently reporting wait times of at least seven days for most specimens

Wolf said last week that the Department of Community and Economic Development had partnered with a Pennsylvania company to develop tests that could provide accurate COVID-19 test results in a matter of minutes. 

But he declined to disclose the name of the firm or reveal how officials had chosen it, saying only that the effort was going slower than hoped.

“We were working originally for August, it [now] looks like it’ll be October,” Wolf told reporters last week. “We’re not holding our breath, but we need to work on it.”

Pennsylvania’s emergency declaration law allows agencies to skirt certain procurement laws to award public contracts in a time of crisis, said Bruce Ledewitz, an expert on the Pennsylvania constitution, told the Capital-Star. (Ed. note: Ledewitz is a Capital-Star opinion contributor.)

Wolf acknowledged that the state “moved faster than ordinary times” to identify the company. 

Levine declined to confirm or deny on Thursday whether the state had given the firm money to develop the groundbreaking technology. 

“I really don’t have any more specific granular detail at this time,” she said. 

Spokespeople from the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Department of Health declined to comment on Wolf’s remarks this week, saying that more details about the project would be forthcoming.