New pandemic measures will take effect in Pennsylvania on Saturday, Governor Tom Wolf’s most sweeping attempt yet – albeit temporary – to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the fall as the number of cases and hospitalizations continue to climb sharply.
Until January 4, Pennsylvania will close indoor restaurants, suspend school sports and extracurricular activities, close all casinos, gymnasiums and other entertainment venues, lower occupancy limits for retail businesses, and significantly reduce the number of people allowed to assemble in one place from Saturday.
Hospital officials have said the new measures could be essential in helping the healthcare system and slowing the spread of the virus as the holiday season begins, but the restrictions sparked an uproar from the hospitality industry and other business owners.
The new restrictions come at a time when the number of daily cases in the state has skyrocketed, with more than 10,000 people newly infected each day for five of the past eight days, and hospitals are reporting major constraints on capacity and the staff. And the pandemic is worsening nationwide, with a record 3,124 deaths reported on Wednesday.
Pennsylvania recorded nearly 12,000 new cases and nearly 250 new deaths as of Thursday, with more than 5,800 hospitalized.
“We were all hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but the current push in Pennsylvania won’t allow us to wait,” Wolf said. “For the next three weeks… I ask that we work together to turn the tide of this tide so that our communities can safely bridge the gap between where we are today and when a vaccine is widely available. “
READ MORE: “Nurses come home, cry in the shower, cry alone in their car”: Wolf launches terrible plea
The measures were not unexpected – Wolf said on Monday he was considering restrictions – and they didn’t go as far as the stricter, longer-term shutdowns of schools and businesses in the spring. But nine months after the start of a pandemic that drained most people financially and emotionally, criticism of the new measures came quickly.
The closure of indoor dining, which had been permitted statewide since late June, will be “devastating” for the hospitality industry, said John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, who, like Wolf, called on Congress to adopt a back-up plan.
“Hundreds of businesses are on the brink of financial disaster and the livelihoods of thousands of employees are at stake,” he said in a statement. “The governor is offering us nothing but empty words in acknowledging the precarious financial situation of the hospitality industry when our expertise is repeatedly ignored when drafting mitigation orders.”
Republican state lawmakers have opposed broad shutdowns throughout the pandemic, and before Wolf’s announcement, Republican Majority House Leader Kerry Benninghoff called on him not to ” devastate lives and livelihoods ”.
Benninghoff said residents should be trusted to behave responsibly on their own.
“Nine months after the start of this pandemic, we know that overly broad government orders do more harm in the long run than good, economically, emotionally and mentally,” Benninghoff said in a statement. “I recognize that we are facing a serious resurgence of COVID-19 and that our health systems are struggling to keep up with the increased demand; However, harmful and overwhelming government mandates for jobs are not the answer.
Modeling shows that if the state were to continue on its current path, it could see 15,000 to 20,000 new cases per day by the end of December, said Health Secretary Rachel Levine, and a much higher number deaths by spring.
If people follow the new restrictions, the state should start to see an improvement in the number of cases by the end of the month, Levine said.
She also announced that with expected federal approval of a vaccine – an FDA panel recommended approval of Pfizer’s vaccine on Thursday – state officials predict that the first health workers will begin receiving injections. next week.
READ MORE: As pandemic rages on, FDA advisers recommend emergency clearance of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
The measures reduce the occupancy rate of all businesses to 50% of capacity. It was previously set at 75% for most companies. Entertainment venues that must close include cinemas, museums, bowling alleys, theaters and concert halls.
In-person extracurricular school activities, such as plays, ensembles and club meetings, and all indoor and outdoor sports activities from Kindergarten to Grade 12 are prohibited. College and professional sports teams are not affected. Gyms can organize outdoor fitness classes.
Gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 50 outdoors. The limits do not apply to places of worship, but places of worship are “strongly encouraged” to find alternatives to in-person worship.
Take-out, delivery and alfresco dining will still be allowed in restaurants, bars and other restaurants. Wolf encouraged Pennsylvanians to frequent their local restaurants as often as possible.
In Philadelphia, where indoor restaurants were closed last month, the city’s more restrictive rules remain in effect. Rivers Casino Philadelphia had also previously closed by order of the city; the other 12 casinos in the state will close by Saturday, the state gaming authority said.
READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak left more than 500 Philly cops unable to work last week, department data shows
“We are fighting for the anniversary celebrations next year. We’re fighting for next year’s family reunions, ”Wolf said. “We are fighting for the special occasions and everyday moments that we all miss so much this year.”
Wolf, who announced on Wednesday that he himself had tested positive for the virus, said on Thursday that his last test was negative and that he was awaiting another test result.
As restaurants bear the brunt of closures once again, owners and industry advocates have expressed upset at the short notice and questioned whether closing restaurants was the right step to flatten the curve.
“Brutal,” said Pete Martin, owner of Ardmore Music Hall and Ripplewood in Ardmore. “You have to reset this thing, and everything should be shut down properly for a month to [that] work. This is not going to do [anything] – just a kick[s] can transmit it at our expense.
READ MORE: Restaurant owners see Philly’s new indoor eating ban as the final blow
Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the state should do more to enforce existing mandates, especially mask wear, before imposing new restrictions to businesses.
“You’re going to see a lot of people being made redundant… when they were just starting to come back,” Barr said. “I think a lot of restaurants are going to throw in the towel.”
And many were particularly upset by the timing of the order, saying it would put people out of work during the holiday season.
“I want to scream how unfair this is, but instead we have 50 employees who depend on us to eat and support their families,” said Kim Strengari, restaurant owner in suburban Philadelphia. , including Gypsy Saloon in Conshohocken. “We will continue to move forward with new ideas, a positive mindset and [we will] continue the secondary jostling.
READ MORE: Here are some of the restaurants in the Philly area that closed in 2020
Wolf admitted that the pandemic had “crushed” restaurants. He cited data, disputed by some restaurateurs, from across the country showing the virus spreading rapidly indoors, especially when masks are not worn, claiming it was the virus, not its administration, which forced the closures.
He noted that a particular risk exists in restaurants and bars as people cannot wear masks while eating and drinking.
“It is unfair. We are frustrated. It is terrible,” he said. “But when we get together with other people, for whatever reason, that’s a real problem.”
Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, expressed frustration that the industry is suffering another economic blow without receiving additional financial or legislative support.
“We understand that the virus is contagious. We are seeing that the number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations is increasing, ”he added. “What we don’t understand is why our state government has asked industry to sacrifice so much, but continue to sacrifice industry.”
Healthcare workers sounded the alarm this week over their strained resources, and some hospital officials who appeared at Wolf’s briefing detailed the severe effects of the outbreak.
Healthcare workers “feel like they’re just dumping water, but there’s still a big hole in the bottom of the boat,” said Jaewon Ryu, president of Geisinger, a healthcare system serving over 3 million Pennsylvanians.
During the summer, less than 3% of tests administered by Geisinger were positive; now about a quarter of all tests are positive, Ryu said. His system is “about 100%” full, and Ryu said the mitigation measures will help hospitals regain capacity and stabilize.
READ MORE: These are the people we’ve lost to the Coronavirus in Greater Philadelphia
The orders have also garnered praise from other health leaders.
“Governor Wolf’s decisive actions today… will reduce the pressure on hospitals and healthcare workers, many of whom are already at their breaking point,” said Antoinette Kraus, executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.
Philadelphia on Thursday announced 937 new confirmed cases and nine deaths, as the city marked nine months since its first confirmed case of the virus.
As of Thursday, there were 870 COVID-19 patients in Philadelphia hospitals, including 111 on ventilators.
New Jersey on Thursday reported 5,370 additional confirmed cases of coronavirus and 68 additional deaths. Governor Phil Murphy in a tweet called the numbers “alarming.”
“We have to hang on a little longer,” he said.
Editors Michael Klein, Andrew Maykuth, Sean Collins Walsh, Laura McCrystal, Allison Steele, Michaelle Bond, and Katie Park contributed to this article.