Wolf says he’s not ready to follow Allegheny County’s lead and shut bars statewide

Rise in coronavirus cases in western Pa.'s largest county prompted new restrictions there

  • Ed Mahon

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a news conference on June 29, 2020, outside UPMC Pinnacle Community Osteopathic in Dauphin County.

While Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf supports a new restriction in Allegheny County that bans customers from drinking alcohol inside bars and restaurants, he says he is not considering a similar ban statewide.

The Democratic governor wants to leave those decisions to county leaders.

“Right now, we’re in the stage that, I think, we can do things with surgical precision,” Wolf  said during a Monday news conference outside UPMC Pinnacle Community Osteopathic, a Dauphin County hospital.

Wolf said the statewide restrictions he imposed in March made sense, but he said case levels have since dropped and state officials know more about how to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re in a better position, and so we don’t need to do the broad, draconian things we did three months ago,” he said.

The new restriction in Allegheny County goes into effect 5 p.m. Tuesday, and county leaders imposed it following a surge in cases there.

The ban on drinking inside bars and restaurants in western Pennsylvania’s largest county followed similar announcements in Florida and Texas after rapid increases in coronavirus cases in those states. The number of newly confirmed coronavirus infections in Pennsylvania has also increased in recent days, although numbers here are significantly lower than in Florida and Texas.

Pennsylvania reported 574 new cases on Saturday, compared to 9,019 in Florida and 5,198 in Texas, according to coronavirus data tracked by John Hopkins University.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said if he could go back and change anything about his response to the coronavirus pandemic, he would probably slow down the opening of bars, Texas Tribune reported. He said people “go to bars to get close and to drink and to socialize, and that’s the kind of thing that stokes the spread of the coronavirus.”

On Monday, leaders in other states appeared to take note of growing coronavirus numbers across much of the country. New Jersey’s governor, Democrat Phil Murphy, delayed the return of indoor dining in his state. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, ordered bars to close.

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In Pennsylvania, Wolf already moved 66 out of 67 counties to the green phase of his reopening plan, meaning bars and restaurants are allowed to reopen as long as they take certain precautions. The last county in the yellow phase, Lebanon, will move to green on Friday.

While Wolf moved Philadelphia to the green phase, city leaders chose to keep some restrictions in place, including a ban on indoor seating for bars and restaurants.

Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, moved to the green phase on June 5. On Sunday, the county’s health department reported 96 new cases. It was “the second straight day that it has posted a record number of infections,” according to WESA.

After Allegheny County’s announcement, Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said members from across the state reached out to the association with concerns.

“They’re definitely worried,” Moran said.

His association encouraged members to look at Allegheny County as a warning and an example of why it’s important to follow the state’s social distancing rules for bars and restaurants.

Pennsylvania’s rules require customers to wear masks while entering, exiting or traveling through the restaurant, but they can remove face coverings while sitting down. And the state limits the number of customers allowed in the bar or restaurant at once. There are two options, and businesses have to go with the most restrictive: Bars can either operate at no more than 50 percent capacity, or the business has to calculate the maximum number of people who could fit inside its facility while ensuring all tables remain at least six feet apart.

Still, Moran said he wishes that bars and restaurants that did follow the rules could stay open.

In a letter to Allegheny County leaders and the Wolf administration, the president of the association, Curtis Mason, said the restrictions were too broad, and he said the county put too much blame on bars and restaurants.

“In recent weeks, Pittsburgh has had riots and protests that likely contributed to increased COVID-19 cases,” Mason said. “Travel to summer vacation spots that have turned into COVID-19 hot spots has also been cited as problematic.”

Mason said if government leaders were truly concerned about the risk of coronavirus spreading inside bars and restaurants, they could have focused more on enforcing safety guidelines.

In a news release issued Monday, the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement emphasized the enforcement actions it took. The agency said officers have conducted compliance checks at more than 15,100 licensed liquor establishments since mid-March. The agency says officers have issued 162 warnings and 103 notices of violations.

» PA Post is an independent newsroom covering policy and government in Pennsylvania. For more, go to www.papost.org.

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