The Wolf administration once again released a COVID-19 order that left Pennsylvanians up in arms. Effective July 16, indoor dining at restaurants is limited to 25 percent capacity (it was previously 50 percent); bar seating is prohibited; and facilities that offer alcohol cannot operate unless they also serve food.
During a recent virtual news conference, the Bucks County Commissioners and Health Director Dr. David Damsker addressed these new restrictions and their impact on the county.
“I understand why he did what he did, but I do think it punished bars and restaurants in Bucks County a little bit,” said Damsker. “The majority of facilities were absolutely complying with what we were asking them to do. There were some that went all out to make sure that the seating was done properly, and everything else.”
“I am concerned about restaurants and bars. They’ve only had a few weeks to recover,” said Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia. “But they will never recover if we don’t keep the count low.”
Damsker said the order from Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine came after increases in COVID-19 cases were seen in the southwest portion of the state.
“If it’s happening in Allegheny County, it’s certainly capable of happening here in Bucks County. We were thrown into the mix because he had to do it on a statewide basis,” he said. “The governor didn’t just make this up. There’s real risk to alcohol being served in bar areas, where the social distancing is not occurring.”
Still, Damsker stressed that bars are not the only culprit behind COVID spikes.
“We’ve seen issues where people are having parties at their house and they’re not social distancing,” he said. “I want people to realize that you can get coronavirus at a friend’s house, especially if you’re with people that you don’t know, if there’s alcohol involved and you’re not social distancing.”
After reviewing the order, Damsker determined a number of gray areas he hopes are clarified in the coming days. For example, if a bar doesn’t have a kitchen but has pizza delivered, does that meet Wolf’s requirements to stay open?
When asked about Wolf’s reasoning that three factors – non-compliance with mask-wearing, out-of-state travel and lack of national coordination – are contributing to a rise in COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, Damsker shared his thoughts.
“You’re never going to get 100 percent compliance with mask-wearing. There’s certain people who have medical conditions, some people who will refuse no matter what you say to them,” he said. “If most people wear it most of the time, you’re going to have a really good effect from that. I don’t want anyone in Bucks County to freak out if they see one person without a mask. It’s not going to make a difference on a large scale because most people are doing it most of the time.”
Regarding out-of-state travel, the majority of local cases were infected in hotspot states, including Florida, Texas, Arizona and Delaware, as well as New Jersey beaches.
“If you’re a Bucks County resident and you’re thinking about vacationing in one of those states or going there for a business trip, seriously consider not going,” said Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo. “But if you absolutely have to go, when you come back to Pennsylvania, protect the residents here. Do what the state is asking you to do and quarantine for 14 days to make sure you’re not spreading the virus around the community where you live.”
On a national scale, Damsker said it would be helpful if the federal government could increase testing capacity at labs. Depending on where an individual goes to receive a COVID-19 test, it can sometimes take more than 10 days to receive results. While hospitals have rapid testing capabilities, this is reserved for those who are extremely ill.
“Right now, the laboratory that probably has the longest wait is Quest. That’s a national lab, they are being swamped by other states like Florida, California, Arizona,” Damsker said. “We’ve had some cases that took so long to get their results back from Quest that they were already uninfectious and cleared from isolation. They did their entire isolation waiting for their results to come back. That can’t continue.”
According to Damsker, a quick turnaround time for testing is critical to contact tracing.
“If someone goes to Quest and we don’t get the result for 11 days, we don’t know about these people until we get the positive result in most cases,” he said. “By that point, anyone they’ve had contact with has already done things. They may have gotten sick already.”
He added that residents are also key to an effective contact tracing system.
“This whole thing falls apart if people start becoming selfish or hesitant to tell us information we need to know,” he said. “People need to be honest with us so we can do the actual contact tracing. We need to know where they’ve been because if someone went to a bar or restaurant, we mark that down. If we get another case who went to the same place on the same day, it allows us to actually make decisions to stop the spread.”
Also present during the conference was Chief County Clerk Gail Humphrey, who outlined improvements in the works for the general election in November. For the spring primary, voters could apply for a mail-in ballot by May 26, and it had to be received by June 2. She hopes to lengthen this time period.
“That didn’t allow much time for the mail system to work, so we’re hoping they’ll push that back,” said Humphrey.
Anyone who previously applied for a mail-in ballot had the option to automatically receive one for the general election.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org