By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia hit the pause button on relaxing some coronavirus-related restrictions, and will maintain a ban on indoor dining at restaurants and keep gyms shuttered.
Those restrictions will remain in place through Aug. 1 due to the rise in coronavirus cases regionally and nationally, said Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley on Tuesday.
City officials had planned to allow Philadelphia’s 4,200 restaurants with indoor dining to start seating customers and workout facilities to open their doors this Friday. (Delivery and outdoor seating at restaurants can continue.)
Farley said he was concerned about the economic effect these continued restrictions will have on the city, but he warned reopening too fast could trigger another surge in coronavirus cases, overwhelm the city’s hospital system, and “force us to shut down again.”
“It is a difficult decision because we are concerned about the economy of Philadelphia and … the health effects and the social effects,” Farley said.
The city will remain in a modified “green” phase of reopening that will ease other restrictions starting Friday to allow the reopening of casinos, museums, libraries and indoor shopping malls. It will also permit small indoor gatherings — albeit with limits of their own.
Farley did not rule out reimposing restrictions if conditions worsen.
“If cases rise here in Philadelphia, it is possible that we will have to backtrack and close activities that we are currently allowing and that we are starting to allow reopening as of Friday,” Farley said.
“It’s clear that we will be living with this virus for a long time.”
While Philadelphia officials kept some restrictions in place and remained in a modified green phase, the state moved the city fully into the green phase last Friday along with other regional counties.
The city logged 142 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on Tuesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 26,133 out of 151,723 total tests.
African Americans made up the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the city (45%) and deaths from the disease (51%), according to city data. African Americans are the largest racial group in the city, making up about 44% of the population.
African Americans also have made up the majority of hospitalizations, accounting for 3,401 out of 5,855 (58.1%).
Farley said he does not believe the city’s large protests of racial injustice and police brutality, spurred by the death of George Floyd, had a big impact on the case counts, but said he’ll never know for sure.
The city’s contract tracing program was expected to begin by the week’s end.
The city’s Department of Public Health has hired 58 people, who will interview people with the infection, identify contacts and counsel those contacts to quarantine.
“I can tell you it’s absolutely starting,” Farley said.
The Kenney administration had originally sought to hire 70 staff members and begin the program by Wednesday.
Quarantine recommended for travelers
City health officials are asking travelers to Philadelphia from places with rising case counts to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The city’s health department has contract tracers in touch with some of the people testing positive and a number of them are reporting taking trips to the Jersey shore, where they said they were living together at beach houses or socializing in bars and restaurants, Farley said.
Police officers not wearing masks
Some Philadelphia police continue to buck a directive to wear masks.
Officers were issued a directive to wear face masks for months and “have been reminded on a number of occasions,” said City Managing Director Brian Abernathy.
Yet many officers patrolling city streets, as well as those covering the daily protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, are seen without face coverings.
City officials also ordered mandatory mask-wearing last week for all those in the city.
Abernathy said officials were following up to ensure officers were following protocols.
“This is one of those orders that has been, at least from my understanding, provided on more than one occasion,” Abernathy said.
Abernathy did not rule out disciplining officers who refuse to wear face masks, saying, “I think we don’t want to get to that point.”
Asked what message police officers who refused to wear face masks were sending at a time when the city mandated mask-wearing to stop the spread of the virus, Abernathy said, “I share those concerns.
“Our police force is a microcosm of our society and certainly just like members of our society don’t want to wear masks, I have officers that don’t want to wear masks,” he said. “My job is to make sure that they figure out how to — that they need to and that is going to be the message that continues to go out to the department.”
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania
Allegheny County, where officials over the weekend ordered a halt to drinking alcohol in bars and restaurants due to what they call an “alarming” spike in COVID-19 cases, recorded another single-day record high of new cases reported Tuesday.
For the first time, the county, which includes Pittsburgh and is Pennsylvania’s second-most populous with 1.2 million residents, broke triple digits in one day, saying it had confirmed another 109 cases.
Hospitalizations grew by seven, the county said. Hospitalizations in Philadelphia are not seeing a corresponding increase, but Farley said that figure is a lagging indicator.
State health officials on Tuesday reported another 618 coronavirus cases, sending the total above 86,600, and another 35 deaths, for a total of 6,649.
One-third of the approximately 3,900 new positive cases over the past seven days were in Philadelphia and Allegheny County, with Lancaster and Dauphin counties leading the state in the number of new cases per 100,000 residents over that period.
Statewide, new case counts grew by almost a quarter and the percentage of positive tests also ticked up in the last seven days, compared with the previous seven-day period, according to state data.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. The Associated Press contributed reporting.