Pa. lays out COVID travel restrictions ahead of holidays, without guarantee of enforcement

Pa. Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine briefs the press on Saturday, 4/25/20

(*This story was updated on 11/17/20, at 5:11 p.m. with additional comment)

Out of state travelers to Pennsylvania should have a negative test for COVID-19 within the last 72 hours or stay at home for 14 days, according to new guidance from the state Department of Health.

That guidance comes as Pennsylvania averaged more than 4,000 new cases of the deadly disease a day for the past week.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine announced the rule, among a number of smaller tweaks to existing health orders, as new coronavirus cases increase in the commonwealth as the weather turns cold and more people spend time inside.

The new rules do not come with any new enforcement measures, but Levine, continuing rhetoric she and Gov. Tom Wolf have used throughout the pandemic, asked for citizens’ cooperation.

“We all are blessed to have freedoms in this country, but with freedoms come with responsibilities,” Levine said at a press briefing Tuesday. “We all have a responsibility to work for the common good, and right now, that’s following these guidelines.”

Without buy-in, Levine warned, new cases would continue to spread in Pennsylvania. Modeling suggests that there are enough hospital beds statewide to handle a rise in cases, Levine added, but that certain regions could face shortages. She did not specify where bed shortages could occur.

The commonwealth has reported 1,900 or more cases every day this month, including a record setting 5,900 new cases of the coronavirus Tuesday. For comparison, the highest new daily case count this spring was 1,935 on April 11. So far, 9,355 people have died from COVID-19 in Pennsylvania.

Levine called for hospitals and health systems to coordinate in the coming weeks and develop a contingency plan to keep beds open, including rescheduling elective procedures.

Levine also strengthened the state’s mask order to ask that people cover their faces indoors at all times, regardless of distance. The only exception is for people you live with.

Finally, Levine called for all universities to implement a testing plan, including regular screening tests as well as tests every time students return from a break in classes.

The new rules are far lighter than those enacted by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney Monday. He ordered a stop to all indoor dining and gatherings as well as new restrictions on outdoor gatherings.

Levine continued to rule out returning to the “green, yellow, red” standards used this spring, where red signified a total shutdown of individual counties, But she did not write off strengthening specific restrictions on dining, retail, or other businesses again, either.

Despite the high case counts, Krys Johnson, a epidemiologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the increase cases in Pennsylvania isn’t as bad as other states right now. Tuesday’s actions put Pennsylvanians on notice, she said, while still giving Levine and Wolf latitude to take further action if case counts continue to uncontrollably increase.

“I think she was trying to strike balance between restrictions and social responsibility,” Johnson said.

Enforcement of Wolf’s health orders has, throughout the pandemic, been a question mark.

Wolf and Levine have repeatedly made pleas to people’s better nature, asking them to work together and go along with his orders by will, not by force.

A small number of citations were handed out to businesses or individuals for breaking stay-at-home or business closure orders this spring. Since, most enforcement has been directed at bars and restaurants.

As for the travel restrictions, Levine said Tuesday that the state does not plan to check travelers for a negative test, or force them into quarantine. The rule also does not apply to out-of-state commuters.

Instead, Levine said the order should help discourage travel during the upcoming holiday season, including for Thanksgiving next week.

But Levine also claimed that she could order people into quarantine, if necessary.

“We’re not looking to take people to court, but we have that authority,” Levine said.

The Department of Health sent an unknown number of letters to people positive for COVID-19 with a similar message this summer.

Other states with similar travel restrictions, such as New York, are facing enforcement issues. While the Empire State may not be checking every border-crosser, it is at least requiring those coming in to provide contact info to public health tracers. Connecticut, meanwhile, is fining people up to $1,000 who cross state lines without following similar guidance.

While some states are taking a stern enforcement approach, Temple’s Johnson said that a light touch was necessary, especially amid an on going conversation about policing and police violence in America. Punitive measures also disproportionately impact low income people, Johnson added.

The goal, Johnson said, is “not trying to force things on people, but hope that they have the respect for themselves and one another.”