Due to modeling which they say has Pennsylvania on a collision course with an explosion of new coronavirus cases next month, Gov. Tom Wolf Monday announced new restrictions he and health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said will help slow the disease’s spread.
“As our hospitals and health care system are facing greater strain, we need to redouble our efforts to keep people safe,” Wolf said in a news release about the updates to the state’s safety measures. “If our health care system is compromised, it isn’t only COVID-19 patients who will suffer. If we run out of hospital beds, or if hospital staff are over-worked to the breaking point, care will suffer for every patient–including those who need emergency care for illnesses, accidents or chronic conditions unrelated to COVID-19.”
According to the governor’s office, the modeling shows a surge in cases to 22,000 a day by December. In recent days, the daily average of new cases in Pennsylvania has been between 6,000 and 7,000. Though modest in comparison to what the modeling suggests could be around the corner, the current daily case totals are roughly three times higher than the daily case totals reported at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in the spring.
In Monday’s news release, Levine said modeling conducted last week by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington predicts that if current virus trends continue, and mitigation requirements are ignored, Pennsylvania will run out of intensive care beds in December and could have more than 32,000 deaths from COVID-19 by Feb. 23, 2021.
As of Monday, there had been approximately 10,000 COVID-19 deaths to date in the state.
The news release said that universal mask-wearing could cut the predictive death total in half.
Pennsylvania has a mask order that has been in place since April. The order has been updated and expanded many times, most recently to require residents to wear face masks inside their homes if they are in the presence of non-household members.
In businesses masks are also required, however there are exemptions for anyone who claims a medical condition prevents them from wearing a mask, and the state doesn’t require that proof of a medical condition be presented in those instances, which is one reason that anyone shopping or dining in public without a mask is rarely questioned.
Similarly, no proof of a medical condition was required when thousands of voters went to the polls, maskless, to cast their ballots in the presidential election three weeks ago.
According to the governor and his health secretary, however, things are going to change.
“For those who refuse to do their part to protect their neighbors and communities and refuse to accept that their actions have consequences that cause pain and suffering for others, we will be stepping up enforcement of all of the public health orders Dr. Levine and I have put in place,” Wolf said in Monday’s news release.
On Twitter, the response to Wolf’s new restrictions was characteristically unfavorable:
Today I’m announcing efforts to slow the spread of #COVID19 as cases reach critical levels.— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) November 23, 2020
They include a recommitment to school safety, protections for businesses and employees, reduced gatherings, enforcement for mask wearing, and an advisory encouraging PA'ians to stay home. pic.twitter.com/NbV8w9Xqq2
Among the updated and/or new restrictions he and Levine announced Monday are new requirements for public schools.
In counties in which there has been substantial community spread of the virus for two consecutive weeks, districts that wish to continue to provide in-person learning must submit an attestation form signed by the superintendent and school board president to the state by Nov. 30. The form must state they have either transitioned to fully remote learning or are complying with the state’s health orders if they are conducting in-person instruction in a county in which the coronavirus is spreading at a “substantial” rate.
Northampton and Lehigh counties are among the 59 counties in which substantial transmission of COVID-19 is currently occurring.
As of Monday, Lehigh County was reporting more than 180 new cases a day on average and Northampton County was reporting more than 142 cases, according to CovidActNow.
Saucon Valley is one of several districts in the area that continue to offer full, in-person instruction for the majority of its students, although all students will learn remotely for a week following the Thanksgiving holiday. Superintendent Dr. Craig Butler said virtual schooling from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 is meant to be a preventive measure.
Schools that do not sign or comply with an attestation to the state will be required to “provide only fully remote learning and suspend all extracurricular activities as long as the county remains in the substantial transmission level,” the state’s news release said.
The state has also announced further restrictions for indoor and outdoor gatherings, which can be found in a table in the news release on the governor’s website.
For example, the maximum occupancy for an indoor event of up to 2,000 people will now be 10 percent of the venue’s maximum occupancy–or 200 people–and no events with more than 500 people may be held indoors.
Additionally, all alcohol sales in bars and restaurants must stop at 5 p.m. this Wednesday, Nov. 25, which the news release said will help prevent crowding in those establishments on the night before Thanksgiving.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving Eve is a popular night for drinking and socializing in bars.
“On Nov. 25, 2020 only, all sales or dispensing of alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption at businesses in the retail food services industry, including bars, restaurants, and private catered events must end at 5 p.m.,” the release said. “Indoor dining may continue, (and) takeout is encouraged.”
The governor’s office said Monday that as part of this latest effort to try and stop the spread of the virus, it is further empowering local governments to do more to help protect the people in their communities.
“While statewide mitigation steps are necessary, local leaders can implement their own orders, ordinances or directives in order to protect health and safety as long as they are stricter than those mandated by the state,” the news release noted. “Additionally, counties and municipalities are authorized to enforce state law, including orders from the secretary of health or governor.”
Lastly, Wolf and Levine announced that enforcement of the health and safety orders the state has issued will be “ramped up.”
The news release listed this bullet point as proof of how the state will enforce them:
- Orders are enforceable as a disease control measure under the Disease Prevention and Control Law. Citations may be written under the Administrative Code of 1929 71 P. S. § 1409 and/or the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 35 P.S. § 521.20(a). The decision whether to issue a warning or a citation is made on a case-by-case basis and determined by the unique circumstances of each encounter.
It said anyone found to be in violation of the out-of-state travel order, the mask order, the business order, the restaurant mitigation order, the gathering limit order or the school mitigation order ersons could be subject to a fine of between $25 and $300 dollars.
“Enforcement agencies include the Pennsylvania State Police, local law enforcement, personnel from the departments of Agriculture and State and PA Liquor Control Board stores who interact with visitors,” the news release said.
If a complaint about a business is received, that business will receive a warning letter, and if the state receives multiple complaints about a business that business runs the risk of having them referred to the state police or state regulatory agencies for investigation.
“We are in a very dangerous situation, and we need to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 right now because if we give in to the virus, we will lose many more Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said. “And that is unacceptable.”