As COVID-19 cases and deaths surge, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine asked Pennsylvanians to “stand united against the virus by adhering to existing mitigation orders and stricter efforts.” New limited-time mitigation efforts began Saturday and continue through 8 a.m. Jan. 4. Among the most contentious aspects of these temporary restrictions is the shutdown of “all in-person indoor dining at businesses in the retail food services industry, including, but not limited to, bars, restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, social clubs, and private catered events.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the anger that has erupted around the Wolf administration’s new indoor dining restrictions. All of the ingredients are there: more economic pain for small businesses and their employees; debates about personal freedom vs. personal responsibility; simmering resentment about the shuttering of restaurants earlier this year; ongoing failures by the state and federal government to provide restaurateurs and their workers with the help they need to stay closed and stay home; and the heartbreak of shuttering the holiday dining-out season.
Perhaps this editorial board was even a bit naive when it wrote last week that “three weeks of additional sacrifice cannot possibly be too much to ask when so many are giving all they have to fight this vicious virus.”
Yet we stand by what we wrote.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask.
It’s crucial to step back and see the bigger picture of the ongoing deadly pandemic when debating Pennsylvania’s temporary closure of restaurants.
Viewed through that lens, here are thoughts on some of the complex issues surrounding restaurants:
— Wolf was right to temporarily ban indoor dining during this holiday season. Scientific studies of indoor dining — during which diners necessarily remove masks to eat and air circulates through a closed system — show that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is greatly heightened.
“South Korean researchers released a study last month ... that suggests the virus, under certain airflow conditions, travels farther than six feet and can infect others in as little as five minutes,” The Washington Post detailed in a Dec. 11 article.
That’s sufficient justification for halting indoor dining.
It’s possible, as The New York Times reported, that there’s a “sweet spot” around 20% capacity for relatively safe indoor dining. But why risk even that? Besides, we suspect that just as many people would complain about 20% capacity as are complaining about no indoor dining. Wolf’s three-week shutdown makes sense in this dangerous moment.
— Wolf was wrong, however, to give restaurants less than two days’ notice on this temporary shutdown. Managing these businesses is not easy, even in the best of times. Food and ingredients must ordered in advance. Shutting that all down with little warning simply served to rub salt in the economic wounds of a struggling industry.
“For us to close again is an extreme hardship,” Lin Weaver, co-owner of Shady Maple Smorgasbord, told LNP | LancasterOnline last week. “We have food bought and prepped for Saturday and next week. Plus needing to lay off employees again causes all kinds of challenges.”
We agree, and wish Wolf had handled this more mindfully.
— There have been positives along the way. The county commissioners have approved millions in grants through the Small Business Recovery and Sustainability Program, which was funded by the federal CARES Act.
These actions, done in partnership with the Economic Development Corporation of Lancaster and the Lancaster Chamber, have helped more than 1,300 businesses — many of them restaurants — across the county, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker reported.
— But that help is just one small part of the necessary equation. Congress and the state Legislature have failed Lancaster County restaurant owners and employees (among many others they have failed).
Republican leaders in the General Assembly used all $1.3 billion in remaining federal COVID-19 relief that was sent to Harrisburg to prop up next year’s state budget.
“In order to avoid raising taxes or borrowing, the legislature intends to use the federal stimulus money to pay the salaries of state-employed public health and safety frontline workers,” Spotlight PA reported last month.
That budget decision understandably disappointed the restaurant industry. The General Assembly should have done more to help restaurants and their workers, many of whom have been laid off or furloughed.
But state lawmakers passed the buck to Congress, which has done an even worse job of dragging its feet since the CARES Act was signed by President Donald Trump nearly nine months ago. Even this week, Congress is staging political pitched battles over details of COVID-19 aid as Americans worry about their immediate futures.
Lawmakers deserve to be targets of our ire.
— Finally, this: While we sympathize with and are rooting for everyone in the restaurant industry, we do not condone the actions of those who defy the governor’s temporary restrictions and open their doors for indoor dining.
It is incumbent upon restaurant owners to be responsible community members and follow Wolf’s order. We must not become numb to the reality that more than 310,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. More than 3,500 died on one day this week. That means we’re on pace to lose more than 24,000 Americans during the week in which Christmas falls. Lancaster County is on a sorrowful pace to have its single deadliest month of the pandemic.
We must abide by the governor’s commonsense restrictions, support the restaurant industry by ordering takeout and delivery meals and gift cards and lobby our elected officials for long-overdue relief.
That brings us to the lamentable news that some local restaurants are defying the governor’s orders.
It is a dangerous moment for this type of dissent. And the reasoning behind it is grossly misguided.
It puts our overburdened and exhausted health care workers at greater risk by allowing more opportunities for the coronavirus to spread in public
It potentially puts defiant restaurants’ employees in the difficult position of having to choose between their job and following the governor’s orders.
It encourages support for bad science.
As reported by LNP | LancasterOnline on Thursday, the owners of a prominent Lancaster city restaurant sent an email to customers indicating that they intend to keep their indoor dining room open.
“We do not take this decision lightly, especially during these unprecedented and often divided times,” Sean Cavanaugh and Michael Carson, the owners of John J. Jeffries, wrote in the email.
They cited worries that their employees might not be able to “pay rent and buy groceries” for their families with the current state and federal unemployment benefits, some of which are set to expire this month.
We share those concerns.
But retaining staff in order to offer indoor dining when it is not safe is irresponsible.
Even worse, according to LNP | LancasterOnline, the John J. Jeffries owners cited in their email “the Great Barrington Declaration, a controversial approach to the pandemic that says people at lower risk of dying from COVID-19 should be allowed to resume their normal lives. This method would allow the virus to circulate among less-vulnerable people to build up herd immunity.”
The Great Barrington Declaration is lousy science. And the owners of John J. Jeffries should walk up the street to Franklin & Marshall College and ask an actual academic to help them understand why.
Its precepts have been roundly criticized by everyone from the World Health Organization to Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf, who said this of his country’s original no-lockdown, herd immunity strategy: “I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible.”
Even a co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, backed down somewhat from the ways in which the document has been used and interpreted for public health decisions, the website Medscape reported last month.
“I think all of the mitigation measures are really important,” Bhattacharya said in a livestream debate.
As do we.
We don’t have to like the restrictions. And it’s fair to criticize aspects of their implementation.
But they need to be heeded.
Defiance and disbelief are two of the big reasons we have arrived at this terrible moment. Enough.