Gov. Tom Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine banned alcohol drinking at bars and restaurants on Thanksgiving eve and promised stepped-up enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.
They also issued new restrictions on schools, hospitals and other businesses and renewed official advisories for people to stay home, wear masks and avoid in-home gatherings with people from outside a household.
“I know that this year has been hard, it’s been frustrating. And we all just want to celebrate something after all the hardship and the fatigue and the sorrow of this year,” Wolf said during an online news conference. “I know it’s painful to miss seeing our loved ones, but we can keep them safe by keeping our distance this year.”
Wolf and Levine cited a COVID-19 death rate that quadrupled in the last week, a daily new case count seven times higher than two months ago and a sharp rise in hospitalizations.
The knowledge state officials gained since the pandemic’s start allows for more targeted limits, Wolf said.
“We want to make sure that we protect public health. But we also continue to support our very fragile economy. The new mitigation measures will focus therefore on reducing large gatherings and increasing enforcement of existing measures, things that are already in place,” the governor said.
Under the new orders, restrictions or guidelines:
Bars and restaurants may not serve alcohol for on-site consumption after 5 p.m. Wednesday, but indoor dining may continue. This aims to reduce gatherings at bars only on the night before Thanksgiving, traditionally bars’ busiest.
Occupancy restrictions for indoor dining remain the same.
Schools in counties with substantial transmission must officially confirm they are complying with all state protocols to control the virus. If they do by 5 p.m. next Monday, they keep local control on deciding on in-person or online instruction. If they don’t, they must begin all-online instruction and eliminate all extracurricular activities. Schools must comply with protocols if a COVID-19 case is identified in a school building.
Businesses can earn immunity from COVID-19-related lawsuits for enforcing mask requirements unless they otherwise exhibit grossly negligent, reckless or bad faith behavior.
The immunity also applies to state employees, local Health Department personnel, state and local law personnel and personnel of other “authorized government agencies.”
Telework becomes mandatory starting Friday unless impossible.
Gathering limits for larger venues are strengthened. For indoor venues with a maximum occupancy of up to 2,000 people, occupancy is restricted to 10% and between 2,001 and 10,000 people, it’s 5%. No venue can entertain more than 500 people. For outdoor events, the limits are 15% for venues with maximum occupancy of 2,000 and 10% between 2,001 and 10,000 people. The maximum is 2,500 for any venue.
The stepped up enforcement will mean progressively tougher penalties for repeat violations.
After getting a complaint about a business, the Department of Health will send a warning letter. Continuing violations could bring fines of between $25 and $300 and possible closure.
Hospitals will have to reduce elective medical procedures by half if they meet at least two of three criteria. The criteria have to do with staffing shortages, sharp increases in COVID-19 admissions and bed availability.
‘Lose a big night’
Patrick Nasser , co-owner of the Backyard Ale House on Linden Street in Scranton, called the new restriction on Wednesday night “an extra blow” to his business.
“Our capacity is already limited, so either way we were going to lose a big night in the bar industry,” Nasser said.
The bar didn’t place its usual large order for the big night, but Nasser said the restriction will still hurt.
“We’ve trimmed back our orders in general and manage expenses on a day-to-day basis because you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “This is another example of them pulling the rug out from under us.”
Jay Velar , co-owner of the Railyard on Jefferson Avenue in Scranton , said “losing these big days is terrible for our industry.”
“We’re a restaurant, first and foremost, but not being able to serve alcohol is very harmful,” he said.
He understood the governor’s decision and lamented the unfairness to businesses that followed rules to keep customers safe.
“We went above and beyond,” he said. “It’s a shame we have to suffer because of decisions others are making.”
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