Photo: Gov. Tom Wolf/Flikr page
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
Pennsylvania will lift all COVID-19 restrictions — except an order to wear a mask while in public — on Memorial Day, the Wolf administration announced Tuesday, promising to restore the state to some semblance of normalcy more than a year into pandemic.
Capacity restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses, as well as indoor and outdoor event gathering limits, will go away on May 31, the Department of Health said.
The state made the announcement with little fanfare, via news release.
“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 CDC 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 while away from home 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. And other state mandates, including a requirement that hospitals and long-term care facilities report new infections, will remain.
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, Gov. Tom 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 12.8 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 capacity 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.