Instead of the joyous wedding festivities usually held at Pen Ryn Estate in Bensalem, the waterfront mansion was the venue for a different sort of event, one sorely lacking in music, food and dancing – a discussion about COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Sept. 9, the House Majority Policy Committee heard testimony from local business owners and healthcare professionals on the impacts of the virus and continued restrictions from Gov. Tom Wolf. Present among the elected officials were state Reps. K.C. Tomlinson, Frank Farry and Wendi Thomas.
Speaking on behalf of the restaurant industry was Rui Lucas, general manager of na’Braza Brazilian Steakhouse and Iron Abbey Gastro Pub, both in Horsham. Lucas addressed Wolf’s recent announcement that restaurants can expand indoor dining to 50 percent capacity on Sept. 21 if they complete a self-certification process, which is meant to show customers the restaurant is following safety protocols.
“No other industry, retail or otherwise, has had to sign a waiver to operate,” he said, adding that many of the governor’s orders have been short-notice, unfair and made with “no thought whatsoever.”
Lucas went on to explain how he thinks restaurants are being punished, and he’s not sure why.
“We are one of the safest industries out there,” he said, listing the certifications and food safety training staff must undergo every two years. “I have no idea what the governor has against the restaurant industry. Maybe it’s because we started speaking up relatively early.”
When asked by a committee member whether he and other restaurant owners will complete the self-certification process, Lucas said they’re not thrilled about it.
“I think a lot of them are cautious about it right now,” he said. “Perhaps we need to look at how much power a governor has.”
Dr. David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department, provided the committee with an update on the local COVID-19 situation. While there have been spikes in cases due to college students returning home after attending small gatherings, hospitalizations are down to a handful. The county has been averaging between 20 to 30 new cases daily for the last several weeks.
“We’re always going to have a handful of cases. I believe we’re at a stage now where we’re not going to see fewer cases than we’re seeing now,” Damsker said. “People are out and about. People are having gatherings. But when you go to your friend’s house for a beer, sit 6 feet away from them. I know it’s silly, but you can wear a mask at your friend’s house. They think that magically, just because I know these people, I can’t get COVID from them. And that’s not true.”
According to Damsker, society may have to live with COVID-19 on a long-term basis.
“I believe the way to do that is to open things up, but do it safely,” he said, adding that many mom and pop stores should’ve been allowed to reopen much sooner. “Target could sell clothes, but then a clothes store wasn’t allowed to open because they’re not considered to be essential. I think that any business that showed they could meet the requirements of the 6 feet all should’ve been open.”
Dr. Gerald Wydro, chairman of emergency medicine at Jefferson Health – Northeast, shared with the committee the devastating emotional, psychological and financial impacts of COVID-19 on the healthcare system and its frontline workers. For months, they’ve all been going into battle to fight what Wydro described as an “invisible foe.”
“How do you work on someone who’s dying in front of you from an invisible virus you know very little about, and there’s very little you can do?,” he asked.
As if that wasn’t stressful enough, he said safety guidance changed constantly and there was a severe lack of personal protective equipment throughout the worst part of the pandemic.
“The fact that we had nurses and doctors on Facebook saying, ‘Can someone get me a mask?’ is unacceptable,” Wydro said. “I never in my career reused a mask. Now, I wear the same mask for a week.”
While hospitals are treating fewer individuals with COVID-19, they’re getting an influx of patients suffering heart disease, stroke and other ailments. These patients put off going to the doctor out of fear of contracting COVID-19, and now, said Wydro, they’re coming in much sicker than they would have six months ago. He reflected on one patient who avoided calling an ambulance for three days after having a massive stroke.
“Don’t be afraid of COVID, respect COVID,” Wydro said. “Don’t put off care.”
Wydro asked the committee to look into not only continued availability of PPE, in case of a COVID resurgence this fall and winter, but also the “price gouging” of materials. He said a gown that normally costs a few cents is now going for $10.
“We need to stabilize the healthcare system. We have to keep our healthcare workers safe,” Wydro said. “If we don’t, they won’t be there when we need them.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org