Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday afternoon that he was imposing statewide, “targeted mitigation” measures to squelch a rise in the commonwealth’s COVID-19 numbers. Nightclubs will be shut down. Only bars that offer sit-down, dine-in meals, or take-out sales of alcoholic beverages, may remain open. Indoor restaurant dining will be restricted to 25% occupancy. Businesses are required to have employees work remotely, unless that’s not possible. Outdoor gatherings are restricted to 250 people; indoor gatherings to 25. The order took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday morning.
This was news no one wanted to hear.
Wolf said Pennsylvania has seen “an unsettling climb in new COVID-19 cases” in the past week.
“If we don’t act now, medical experts are projecting that this new surge in cases could soon eclipse the peak in April,” when the commonwealth saw nearly 2,000 new cases one day, he said.
That’s a horrifying thought.
Still, we feel awful for the bars, restaurants and other businesses whose profit margins already are ice-thin at best after months of being shut down. One member of this editorial board spent part of her childhood living above her parents’ Lancaster city tavern — so she knows how difficult the business is even in good times.
And we fear that Lancaster’s nightclub scene — a draw for visitors to the county, as well as residents — is going to take another devastating hit.
But we’ve watched with alarm what’s happening in other states. So has Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who said Wednesday, “In Florida, you can see what happens when you don’t do any mitigation efforts,” and the virus is allowed to burn.
Amid this “unsettling climb” in cases, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Heather Stauffer reported that the percentage “of people testing positive for COVID-19 who are under age 50 is rising statewide and in Lancaster County, concerning health officials.”
“At the start of the pandemic, we saw a higher number of cases in people ages 19-49, before it spread to those over age 65,” Levine said. “This pattern is now repeating.”
In hopes of breaking this cycle of infected younger people fueling community spread, Levine and Wolf have moved to reimpose restrictions on bars and nightclubs, where younger people have been congregating and failing to wear masks and socially distance.
Also contributing to the worrying numbers, Wolf said: Pennsylvanians traveling to other states that are coronavirus hot spots, and a "lack of national coordination,” which meant some states failed to act to prevent the surges they’re now seeing.
Not surprisingly — because once again it appears they were not consulted by the Wolf administration — Republican state lawmakers reacted angrily to the new restrictions.
“Here in Lancaster County, we are seeing lower rates of infection and hospitalizations because local leaders have worked together from the start to create a response plan that meets the unique needs of our communities,” Lancaster County Republican state Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin said in a joint statement. “To undermine that approach now in favor of these new, one-size-fits-all mandates from the Governor flies in the face of all the progress our area has made in the fight against COVID-19.”
We understand, given the prospect of another surge, that Wolf and Levine felt the need to act quickly. But why the short notice and seemingly no input from the Republican lawmakers who control the state Legislature?
Wolf may be stinging from the legislative effort to pass a constitutional amendment that would limit the governor’s power in future emergencies. But he could have chosen this moment to start over with the new House speaker, Rep. Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom.
If his overtures were rebuffed, he could say he at least tried. And it would have cost him maybe a day.
For their part, Aument and Martin demanded that the governor release the data proving that “bars and restaurants are the source of the localized spikes in infection rates in other parts of the state. ... The Governor owes it to every business he is imposing restrictions on to prove why these ruinous actions are justified.”
We’d like to see that data, too. But we were struck by another line in the senators’ statement: “Creating blanket mandates for communities that are winning the fight against COVID-19 does nothing to make us safer or healthier, and it certainly does not help our economy.”
We wish we could say definitively that Lancaster County is “winning the fight against COVID-19.”
The long game
It’s true, as county Commissioner Josh Parsons tweeted Wednesday, that the numbers of COVID-19 patients in county hospitals right now are relatively low, and there are plenty of ventilators available.
But this virus is playing the long game. And some county residents are giving it plenty of opportunities to take hold, by pretending that its danger has passed.
We continue to get letters to the editor decrying the commonwealth’s mask requirement. We continue to see people at stores and restaurants refusing to wear masks, even though they’re required in Pennsylvania businesses — and indeed, any time we’re in crowded public spaces.
And again, as Stauffer reported, state Department of Health data show that people ages 19 to 49 now account for 45% of cases in Pennsylvania, and the rise has been particularly sharp in ages 19 to 24.
“In the region that includes Lancaster County and Philadelphia, the 19-to-24 age group went from about 5% of cases in April to about 16% so far in July,” Stauffer noted. “The department said it couldn’t provide county-specific numbers. But Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health said people ages 19 to 24 were about 7% of its positive tests in April and about 14% for the first week in July.”
So that’s not great.
People in that age group tend to feel invincible. And if they’re not sufficiently cautious, isolating at home if they test positive for COVID-19, older and more vulnerable people will get sick.
The novel coronavirus and its terrible persistence have forced elected officials to make tough decisions.
“We need to nip this in the bud,” Wolf said Wednesday, according to the independent newsroom Spotlight, “so that we have a fighting chance to get to a point where parents are going to feel comfortable and confident that they can send their children to school.”
Dr. David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that hospital’s virus tracker has shown “increased disease activity” in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania counties surrounding Philadelphia, Spotlight PA reported.
“Simply stated, we are seeing now widespread community transmission throughout the Northeast area,” Rubin said. “It’s of sufficient concern now that if we do not act decisively in the next six weeks, we may not be in the favorable terrain we had hoped to be in.”
Like we said, this was news no one hoped to hear.
Please wear masks. Please observe social distancing guidelines. If we want businesses to fully reopen, those measures are our best — indeed, only — hope until there’s a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.