Describing Pennsylvania as in a “precarious place” because of escalating COVID infections that threaten to devastate the state’s health care system, Gov. Tom Wolf warned more mitigation efforts could be coming if residents don’t alter their behavior.
Neither Wolf nor Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who joined the governor for an afternoon press conference Monday, would elaborate on what additional measures could be put in place.
“If we don’t slow the spread of this dangerous virus now, if we don’t do this, the reality is that COVID-19 will overwhelm our hospitals, will overwhelm our health care systems,” Wolf said.
Ahead of Thanksgiving on Nov. 23, Wolf “strongly” advised Pennsylvanians to leave home only for essential needs, limit celebrations to household members and to avoid holiday travel.
The breakneck pace of new infections continues to set and break records, with the total number infected roughly doubling in six weeks.
Cases statewide Saturday, for example, hit a record 12,884 new infections. During the initial surge in the spring, which ushered in a statewide shutdown, the high was nearly 2,000 cases a day.
While calling his color-coded system a “blunt instrument” for reopening the economy, Wolf also said it was effective at flattening the curve, a reference to slowing the number of infections to avoid case spikes.
It’s unclear what the governor’s new mitigation tactics could look like after a federal judge in Pittsburgh ruled that in September Wolf’s stay-at-home and business closure orders were unconstitutional.
Wolf said an announcement could be coming soon.
“This is dangerous for everyone who needs medical care,” he said.
‘Shutdowns are not the answer’
The economic toll the COVID shutdown wrought in Lancaster County has drawn the ire of county commissioners, particularly the Republican members.
Commissioner Josh Parsons did not respond to an LNP | LancasterOnline inquiry Monday. And his fellow Republican commissioner Ray D’Agostino referred a reporter to his Nov. 30 statement, which said, in part, that “shutdowns are not the answer.”
In a letter sent to Wolf on Mother’s Day, 13 Republican federal, state and county elected officials, including Parsons and D’Agostino, wrote Lancaster County would move from the “red” phase — under the strictest stay-at-home orders — to “yellow” on May 15 without the governor’s blessing. The county had been in the red phase since March 27.
The county officially moved into the “yellow” phase on June 5.
Commissioner Craig Lehman, the lone Democrat on the board, repeated what he has said before, that the alarming increase in cases “underscores the importance of wearing masks, practicing proper social distancing and proper personal hygiene and avoiding large gatherings.”
County school superintendents who spoke with LNP | LancasterOnline late Monday afternoon emphasized the importance of remaining flexible as school guidance continues to evolve.
“We have appreciated the degree of flexibility we have been provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and Pennsylvania Department of Health to respond to our local context, to what we are actually seeing in our schools and our community,” Solanco School District Superintendent Brian Bliss said in an email.
Maintaining local control is important to Bliss. But he also conceded that with faculty and staff commuting from as far away as Maryland, which borders the school district, what happens beyond Solanco can — for good or bad — impact their students.
Eastern Lancaster County School District Superintendent Bob Hollister said his team would do its best to adjust to any order “that helps keep our school and broader communities safe,” adding, “We'll figure it out.”
The most recent state requirement for schools came less than two weeks ago.
Public schools — including school districts, charter schools, career and technology centers and intermediate units — in counties with substantial community transmission for two or more weeks were required to complete and submit an attestation form pledging to enforce the latest face covering order.
Every Lancaster County public school did so by Dec. 1.
‘We’re barely even open’
With a statewide closure followed by restrictions on indoor capacity at restaurants and bars, the hospitality industry by far has been hardest hit by the mitigation measures Wolf has put in place.
Officials with the state’s largest hospitality member organization are bracing themselves for Wolf's next orders.
John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said he thought some of Wolf comments reflected an understanding about the precarious situation restaurants are facing.
“Unless (some aid) comes from Washington or the state, the restaurant industry can’t survive another shutdown,” he said. “I think (the Wolf administration) is doing everything within their power to not target the restaurant industry any more than they absolutely have to in order to stop the spread.”
If another restaurant shutdown is in the works, Longstreet said he expects restaurant owners would at least get more than a couple days’ notice, unlike with the rollout of some previous restrictions.
“I’m hopeful that if there’s anything that happens it will be measured and that they’ll try to do everything they can to protect the second largest industry in the state,” Longstreet said.
But Mick Owens, vice president of the state association, took a more pessimistic view, saying he thinks Wolf might be setting the stage for a shutdown of indoor dining as early as next week. Such a move would continue what Owens said has been an unreasonable focus on the restaurant industry.
“We’re barely even open. How are you still blaming us?” said Owens, who owns three Mick’s All American Pubs and one Maize Mexican Cantina in Lancaster County.
Owens said the existing rules for restaurants are enough to keep customers and employees safe, and are far stricter than what is happening in private homes.
“Where do you think there’s going to be more COVID spread? At a restaurant that’s enforcing all the distancing rules? Or when people get together and have their own party in the basement,” Owens said.
Better enforcement of the rules — not new ones — is what is needed, he said.
“They make these rules, then they don’t enforce them. Then when there’s a few outliers that don’t follow the rules, they punish the entire industry,” Owens said. “That’d be great if they did that with politicians — shut down all the politicians for the few corrupt ones. Wouldn’t that be great?”
Staff reporters Alex Geli and Chad Umble contributed to this story.