Pennsylvania halts school sports, bans indoor dining

December 10, 2020 GMT
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Registered nurse Laura Moore, left, swabs a patient during testing for COVID-19 organized by Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers at Mifflin Square Park, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in south Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
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Registered nurse Laura Moore, left, swabs a patient during testing for COVID-19 organized by Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers at Mifflin Square Park, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in south Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Pennsylvania moved Thursday to temporarily halt school sports and other extracurricular activities, close gyms, theaters and casinos, and ban indoor dining at restaurants as state officials respond to the worsening pandemic with a series of new restrictions.

A day after revealing his own COVID-19 diagnosis, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the widely expected clampdown in what he said was an effort to slow the accelerating spread of the coronavirus and prevent hospitals from becoming overrun.

Wolf asserted the tighter restrictions were unavoidable after weeks of exploding case numbers and sharply rising hospitalizations and deaths.

“We all hoped it would not come to this,” he said at a virtual news conference. “The current state of the surge in Pennsylvania, though, will not allow us to wait. We need to slow the spread right now in order to save lives. If we don’t, we’re going to be in big trouble.”

The restrictions will take effect Saturday and will remain until Jan. 4.

They include an indoor gathering limit of 10, an outdoor gathering limit of 50 and capacity restrictions at retail stores.

The temporary ban on sports includes K-12 public schools, nonpublic schools, private schools and sports at the club, travel, recreational and intramural levels. Wolf said professional and collegiate sports may continue without spectators.

Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship were excluded from the indoor gathering limits, but state officials “strongly encouraged” them to avoid congregating inside. Faith leaders should ”carefully weigh the health risks to their congregants given the immense amount of community spread of COVID-19,” the state’s advisory said.

Wolf had suggested on Monday that additional pandemic measures were coming, warning that hospitals were under increasing strain and would have to start turning away patients if they become overwhelmed.

He tested positive for the coronavirus a day later and revealed the diagnosis on Wednesday. He said Thursday he is feeling fine and that his most recent test was negative.

Wolf was found to have the virus after he underwent a routine, weekly surveillance test at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, where he has been working.

Wolf’s spouse, Frances Wolf, tested negative but will continue to quarantine with him at their home in Mount Wolf, near York, the governor’s office said.

Republican lawmakers have staunchly opposed most of Wolf’s restrictions since mid-April and have accused him of abusing his powers. Anticipating that Wolf would announce a new round of restrictions, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, warned him against it Thursday.

“Do not use your executive order pen to devastate lives and livelihoods,” Benninghoff said in a statement.

Business groups also panned the restrictions, with Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President Gene Barr predicting they’ll result in “economic devastation” and a longer road to recovery for businesses already reeling from the pandemic.

Wolf should call the General Assembly back into session “to address the crisis within the crisis … the state’s financial abandonment of thousands of Pennsylvania’s small businesses, taverns and restaurants,” said Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association.

The Wolf administration had tried a series of less restrictive measures in recent weeks and months, with indoor capacity restrictions at bars and restaurants, a statewide mask mandate and a requirement that out-of-state travelers test negative for the virus before arrival. Health officials have also begged people to stay at home whenever possible.

But Wolf acknowledged those measures and advisories have not prevented Pennsylvania’s numbers from going in the wrong direction amid the national surge.

The state is now averaging 10,000 new confirmed cases a day and has a record number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital. Pennsylvania reported 248 new deaths Thursday as the statewide toll passed 12,000.

Some hospitals are running out of intensive-care unit beds, and more than a third of hospitals in a broad swath of southern Pennsylvania anticipate staffing shortages over the next week, according to the state Department of Health.

Health system executives and front-line medical workers alike said Thursday that the COVID situation was increasingly dire and required the state to act.

“As soon as a bed opens, it’s filled again,” Mitchell Davis, a Pittsburgh nurse, said in a statement distributed by the state’s largest union of health care workers. “We need support from the community, support from the government, and support from our employers to be able to fight this and win.”