'Alarming escalation': How will Gov. Wolf's new restrictions affect you?

Associated Press
Restaurants in the 100 block of North George Street moved their seating to the street, Sunday, July 12, 2020. From July 10 through September 7, the block will be closed to vehicle traffic Friday 5:30 p.m. to closing and Saturday and Sunday 1 p.m. till closing.
John A. Pavoncello photo

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania is imposing broad new statewide restrictions on bars and restaurants and larger indoor gatherings, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday, citing an “alarming escalation” in new coronavirus infections and heavily criticizing people who he said had ignored public health orders.

Nightclubs will be shut down, bars will be closed unless they also offer dine-in meals, and bars and restaurants will be limited to 25% capacity under Wolf's order, which takes effect Thursday and also requires companies to have their employees telework to the extent possible.

The new restrictions, coming more than two months after Pennsylvania began reopening its virus-battered economy, risked major backlash in large swaths of the state where COVID-19 has largely been kept at bay.

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Republican lawmakers have staunchly opposed most of Wolf’s restrictions since mid-April and accused him of behaving like a dictator, abusing his power and failing to consult lawmakers on his plans.

“The irreversible impact of his countless, confusing orders cannot be overstated,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said in a written statement. “Gov. Wolf’s decision today will close the doors of some small businesses forever and devastate the livelihoods of so many Pennsylvanians who were just beginning to feel hopeful for the future.”

But Wolf warned that a “new surge is in the offing" that could eclipse what happened in the spring, when the virus killed thousands and sickened tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians.

The Democratic governor said people who refused to wear a mask or abide by social distancing requirements while patronizing bars and restaurants are responsible in part for the virus's resurgence in the state.

“They are annoyingly spreading, or annoyingly picking up, the virus. This carelessness has resulted in pockets of super-spreading,” Wolf said.

He also cited out-of-state travel to virus hot spots, and blamed states in the South and West for “not committing to the things they should’ve done to keep this virus from spreading.”

Gov. Tom Wolf during a visit to the York County Food Bank East York Emergency Food Hub in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“We did everything we should’ve done, we were responsible, and yet we’re paying the price right now,” he said.

Under Wolf’s order, indoor events and gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited, though administration officials said places of worship are exempt. Gyms are allowed to remain open but are supposed to “prioritize outdoor physical fitness activities.” The new restrictions on bars and restaurants say alcohol may only be served on site with a meal.

A group representing tavern owners asked for financial relief, including the elimination of state fees and deeper discounts on liquor sold to bars and restaurants by the state.

“People have paid their license fees and are unable to use them. People have brought staff back and will probably have to lay them off again. It’s not a good situation if you’re a licensed tavern or restaurant," said Chuck Moran of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association.

The Pennsylvania Health Department reported 994 new positive virus cases Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to more than 97,000. The health department reported the results of nearly 29,000 virus tests, the highest one-day total since the beginning of the pandemic.

Health officials also reported 26 new deaths, raising the statewide toll to 6,957.

Pennsylvania's recently elevated statewide virus numbers have been driven in large part by increased spread in the Pittsburgh area, where officials attribute the spike to younger people and others congregating in bars and restaurants.

Allegheny County, which had already imposed temporary restrictions on restaurants and bars, reported 246 additional infections on Wednesday from tests performed between June 30 and July 14. Infection numbers are also up in counties ringing Allegheny.

There's evidence the virus is likewise resurgent in south-central Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia area, according to Dr. David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which developed a virus tracking model.

Rubin, who took part in the governor’s news conference. said that unless the state acts decisively, while case numbers are still manageable, school reopenings will be in jeopardy.

The Philadelphia school district announced Wednesday that it plans to resume limited in-person instruction in the fall, with most students in class just two days per week and learning remotely the other three.

“We’re already at a tipping point where we really have to act. We don’t want to become Florida. We don’t want to become Texas. We don’t want to become Arizona. We have got to act now,” said Wolf, naming three GOP-run states where the virus has been surging.