(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania officials banned alcohol sales at bars and restaurants on Thanksgiving Eve, traditionally one of the industry’s biggest nights of the year, as COVID-19 cases surge.
The Department of Health said Monday nearly 12,000 new cases emerged over the last 48 hours as hospitalizations for the virus exceed 3,300. Another 69 people died, bringing the statewide total to 9,870 since the first recorded case in early March.
And forbidding bars and restaurants from selling drinks between 5 p.m. Wednesday and 8 a.m. Thursday will prevent more deaths, Gov. Tom Wolf said during a Monday news conference. He also advised residents to celebrate Thanksgiving with other household members only.
The state-run Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores will remain open on Wednesday, Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokesperson Shawn Kelly said.
“A number is not just a number," Wolf said. “It’s a person. A family member or a neighbor who gets sick or who dies. Sadly what the numbers show right now is that more people are getting sick at a faster rate than before.”
Test positivity for the last seven day period ending Nov. 19 reached 11.1 percent, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said, more than doubling the 5 percent rate that officials consider worrisome. As intensive care unit beds fill up, Levine said hospitals in strained regions must stop elective procedures once instructed to by the state.
Modeling from Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington projects Pennsylvania could run out of ICU beds next month and that the death toll could exceed 32,000 by the last week of February.
So although the state’s economic restrictions have been arguably the toughest on bars and restaurants, Wolf said it’s a crucial element of saving lives.
“It's not me. It’s the virus,” he said. “It’s not the administration. It’s not the government. … Let’s acknowledge the reality. We’ve got to recognize that as tough as it is, it’s tougher when people die.”
The state also reminded school districts in 59 of the state’s counties with “substantial” levels of community spread about the guidance to transition to remote learning. Indoor gathering limits have been reduced further, with any event of more than 500 people banned. Enforcement of existing mandates, including universal masking, will be stepped up with fines up to $300 possible.
“We don’t want to trash the economy like we did in the spring,” Wolf said. “We don’t have any tentative steps to go back to that old March/April system.”
The aforementioned system shuttered all nonessential businesses for more than two months until health officials deemed that community transmission of the virus had reduced to safer levels in different regions of the state. But the administration insists the state won’t return to these color-coded red, yellow and green phases of shutdown again.
Still, House Republicans criticized the governor for imposing restrictions on residents instead of trusting them to take precautions on their own. The majority party has been vocal about the administration’s unwillingness to work with them on mitigation measures since the pandemic hit last spring.
“While Pennsylvanians prepare to go Black Friday shopping at big box retailers unrestricted by new orders from Gov. Wolf, bars and restaurants are going to be left to languish under more onerous limitations on their ability to do business during what should be a robust holiday season,” said Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus. “Pennsylvanians are currently policing their own activity during the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. What they do not need during this unprecedented holiday season is the heavy hand of government forcing them to do that which they have been doing on their own accord for months.”
Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said the order banning Thanksgiving Eve alcohol sales came as no surprise. And he says the association’s members understand and appreciate their role in saving lives, as well as the administration’s new liability protections for owners enforcing mask mandates.
“But what we don’t get is why there has been no significant financial help to assist our small business taverns and licensed restaurants survive,” he said. “As this crisis continues, more small businesses are closing while their employees lose jobs.”
A survey conducted by the association in August extrapolated the alarming condition of the industry, with seven in 10 respondents indicating they would close by 2021 without a change in the state’s limits on indoor dining capacity and alcohol sales. More than two-thirds experienced cash flow problems caused by the pandemic restrictions.
The survey of 100 licensed restaurants and bars found 13 percent closed already, with 29 percent set to close by December. More than 109,200 employees have been laid off, the association estimates.
Wolf said he continues to support federal and state relief for restaurants and bars. He signed a seven-month budget plan on Monday that used the remaining $1.3 billion in CARES Act money – aid that could’ve funded and industrywide relief, according to many Democrats – to balance the state’s $3 billion deficit, leaving it unclear when or if establishments will see any stimulus at all.
“Help is needed now, not later,” Moran said. “Many small businesses cannot sustain continued targeted mitigation without help from either the federal or state government.”