Pa. Gov. Wolf to lift indoor dining ban, even as fears of worsening winter surge loom

Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine speaks during a press conference inside PEMA headquarters on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020.

Pennsylvania’s three-week-old ban on indoor dining and school sports will be lifted as planned on Jan. 4, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday, despite fears among some public health experts that the state has yet to see the worst of its wintertime COVID-19 surge.

Wolf joined state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine in a virtual briefing Wednesday to declare measured progress during the three weeks of Pennsylvania’s temporary lockdown order, which he hoped would tame a surge of infections over the holidays.

Wolf said the state is reporting fewer new cases this week than it was earlier in December. Health officials announced 8,984 new cases Wednesday, compared to as many as 12,884 in a single day earlier this month.

Wolf admitted that death and hospitalization rates remain “entirely too high.” The state reported 319 new deaths on Wednesday, for a total of 15,672 fatalities since March, as well as 6,022 current hospitalizations. 

But Wolf argued that the hospitalization rate is lower than it was a few weeks ago. He told reporters that fatalities have also declined, though reporting lags have led to high death tolls over the holidays. 

Wolf added that state health officials are also seeing a lower share of COVID-19 tests come back positive – a proxy they have used to gauge levels of undetected transmission in a community. 

Those factors, Wolf said, led to his decision to let his temporary restrictions expire on Jan. 4. Other limits on restaurants, workplaces, and indoor gatherings will remain in effect, along with the state’s universal mask mandate.  

“I announced that I would make this a three-week mitigation effort, and I wanted to do everything I could to stick with that,” Wolf said. “I think we have seen [a] flattening of the curve… the mitigation efforts seem to be working.”

A trade association representing Pennsylvania restaurant owners expressed relief at Wolf’s announcement on Wednesday, while lamenting the toll that COVID-19 has taken on their industry in 2020. 

In a written statement, the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association called on lawmakers to provide grants to bars and restaurants when they return to Harrisburg in the New Year.

The group also asked Wolf to relax his current restrictions on indoor drinking and dining, which limit establishments to 50 percent of their service capacity.

Lawmakers are set to kick off a new legislative session in Harrisburg next week.  

Pennsylvania House Republicans vowed to do what they could to prevent Wolf from issuing “another unexpected and ill-advised shutdown.”

“When we return to session next week, the House Republican Caucus will begin work on an economic recovery plan for all Pennsylvanians that will help ensure these destructive shutdowns and restrictions never happen again,” caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman said in a statement.

While some welcomed the governor’s announcement, at least one epidemiologist publicly expressed concern that the state was rolling back restrictions too quickly, saying on Twitter that “we haven’t even begun to see” new infections from the Christmas holiday.

Data also show Pennsylvania has administered fewer tests over the last week than it did earlier in December. 

Overall, the Commonwealth ranks second-to-last among the 50 states and Puerto Rico in the number of tests administered relative to its population, according to an analysis from Johns Hopkins University. 

Wolf and Levine urged Pennsylvanians on Wednesday to comply with the public health restrictions until they expire on Monday, and to avoid gathering for New Year’s celebrations. 

They reminded the public that vaccine distribution – already underway for frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents – offered a beacon of hope in 2021, even though widespread distribution remains months away. 

The state is now publishing up-to-date vaccine data on a new dashboard, which tracks immunization rates by county, age, race and gender.