Pennsylvania lifting COVID-19 restrictions on Memorial Day

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference encouraging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, in Philadelphia, Monday, May 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference encouraging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, in Philadelphia, Monday, May 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania will lift nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on Memorial Day, the Wolf administration announced Tuesday, promising to restore something approaching normalcy to the state more than a year into the pandemic and just in time for summer.

Capacity restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses, as well as indoor and outdoor event gathering limits, will go away on May 31, meaning concert halls, sports stadiums and wedding venues could soon be packed for the first time since early 2020.

The state’s mask mandate will remain in place, but even that could be dropped — if enough people get vaccinated, Health Department officials said.

The announcement arrived with little fanfare, via news release, even as Gov. Tom Wolf planned to sweep aside pandemic measures he imposed last year to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 1.2 million and killed more than 26,000 statewide.

Officials said the time was right to lift nearly all restrictions. The latest wave of infections and hospitalizations has started to ebb, and more than 50% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

“We continue to make significant progress in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 and as more Pennsylvania adults get vaccinated and guidance from the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) evolves, we can continue to move forward with our reopening efforts,” Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said in the statement.

The Health Department said an order requiring people to wear masks in public will be lifted once 70% of Pennsylvanians aged 18 and older are fully vaccinated. That percentage stood at nearly 42% on Tuesday, according to federal data, while 63% of those 18 and older had at least one dose.

Pennsylvania revised its masking order last week to bring it in line with new federal recommendations that say fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear them outside anymore unless they’re at a crowded event.

The Health Department said that municipalities and school districts can continue to impose their own restrictions. Philadelphia, for its part, said it would continue to limit capacity in restaurants and at both indoor and outdoor events, meaning franchises like the Phillies, Flyers and 76ers will still have reduced attendance, for now.

“Everyone wants this epidemic to end, but this epidemic is not over yet,” said the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley. “It’s good to see this particular wave receding, but we are still right now vulnerable to future waves of the epidemic, and I don’t want to see anyone die unnecessarily.”

The Flyers and Sixers said in a joint statement that even though they are subject to the city restrictions, they expect to have a “full arena later this year for ... games, concerts, and events, and we’re extremely confident in the health and safety measures we’ve put in place.”

Elsewhere, Pocono Raceway immediately invited fans to fill the stands at its NASCAR doubleheader next month, while Pittsburgh Pirates President Travis Williams lauded the “existing and welcomed news” and said the team would have more to say in coming days.

Tuesday’s announcement promised relief for the state’s beleaguered restaurant industry, which has complained for months about capacity restrictions.

“The definitive timeline will allow owners and operators time to plan, but for far too many businesses who shuttered over the last few months, this announcement is too late,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.

Like many other governors around the nation, Wolf, a Democrat, issued sweeping shutdown orders as the coronavirus tore through the state in March 2020. He closed schools, ordered all of Pennsylvania’s 13 million residents to stay at home whenever possible, and shuttered tens of thousands of businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining.”

Republican lawmakers, business owners and conservative voters pushed back, with opponents mounting a series of largely fruitless legal challenges to Wolf’s pandemic authority. In May, voters will get a chance to decide a pair of ballot measures that could limit the length of a declared disaster emergency.

Against that backdrop, state officials had made no attempt to ratchet up restrictions again — even as cases and hospitalizations spiked this spring before more recently receding. In fact, Pennsylvania eased some restrictions on bar seating, restaurant capacity and indoor and outdoor events last month, though limits remained.

“With millions of Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated, it’s time to plan the transition back to normal,” said Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery, a member of the state’s COVID-19 task force, which made the announcement jointly with the Wolf administration. “Hospitalizations and deaths are down. This action today is a key step forward.”

Legislative Republicans said it took the Wolf administration too long to act.

“Today’s announcement is undoubtedly welcomed news for a commonwealth that has suffered for far too long under unilateral and often confusing mitigation orders that have done untold damage to our children’s education, our economy and Pennsylvania’s future,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said in a statement.

New coronavirus infections have declined by more than 30% statewide in the past two weeks, averaging about 3,200 reported cases per day, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Hospitalizations hit a spring peak more than a week ago and have been drifting down since, to an average of about 2,446 per day, according to the Health Department.

Michael Rubinkam
Michael is a Pennsylvania-based general assignment reporter.