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Pennsylvania governor still pushing for new restrictions despite low coronavirus transmission

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is still pushing ahead with his business restrictions even though contact tracing results show that gyms and restaurants in the state have a low incidence of spreading COVID-19.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Montgomery County chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh and Bucks County Health Department director Dr. David Damsker said they found few restaurant-goers and almost zero gym attendees who later tested positive for the virus among those they were able to contact.

This should be a boon for restaurant and gym owners suffering big losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But last week, Wolf decided to enforce new pandemic mandates that would forbid in-person dining and indoor gym operations, among other things. The restrictions took effect on Dec. 12 and will remain in place until Jan. 4.

Very limited spread of the virus in restaurants, gyms

Arkoosh’s team conducted contact tracing before Wolf’s announcement of the measures. Results from this effort show that most of the transmission in restaurants was between restaurant employees and that transmission between employees to customers is very limited. However, Arkoosh clarified that her team was not able to contact everyone.

“[In] our best efforts, we reached 68 to 70 percent of the individuals that tested positive. So, we don’t have information about that other 30, 35 percent,” Arkoosh noted. But based on those they were able to reach, they did not see a significant spread in restaurants and gyms.

“We were not able to find transmission in gyms, and we had almost no transmission in restaurants,” Arkoosh added.

Damsker’s team arrived at the same conclusions after contacting 95 to 98 percent of the county’s positive cases. Though a few restaurant staff became ill and restaurant-goers would sometimes report dining with someone who later tested positive, these cases did not occur “in any greater numbers than other businesses,” Damsker noted.

The spread of the virus in gyms is even more limited. With the exception of one outbreak, which was traced to an outside social gathering of multiple gym members, there was no evidence of transmission in these places, according to Damsker.

Household gatherings top cause of virus transmission

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, was displeased with Wolf’s decision in light of the county data. Wolf prohibited indoor dining, indoor and outdoor activities, and in-person businesses such as gyms, casinos and theaters.

Longstreet lambasted the governor’s repeated reference to a June study from JP Morgan Chase to justify his decision. This study showed that higher restaurant spending in a state correlates to a rise in new infections after three weeks. But New York’s more recent study, which included data from September to November, indicated that restaurants, gyms and hair salons accounted for less than two percent of new statewide COVID-19 cases. In contrast, nearly 75 percent came from household gatherings and living room contacts.

Longstreet pointed out that New York’s data was collected while most restaurants in the state were operating at 50 percent capacity. In Pennsylvania in recent months, most restaurants were operating at just 25 percent.

“The mere fact that the governor keeps falling back on the JP Morgan Chase credit card study as the strongest reason for this action shows that it was a catastrophic, bad decision,” Longstreet said. (Related: Pennsylvania implements NEW coronavirus restrictions: Masks now required indoors.)

Longstreet also mentioned New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan of action to prove his point. During a press conference on Monday, Murphy stated that he is unlikely to shut down restaurants over the holidays. “Do we see substantial indoor spread related to [dining indoors]? And the answer is, we don’t,” Murphy said.

Rachel Kostelac, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, issued a statement saying that the Wolf administration has been monitoring the latest studies relevant to stopping the spread of the virus. Kostelac pointed to the studies linked to the health department’s website. One of these showed that mask mandates, closing restaurants and stay-at-home orders are effective at preventing new infections.

Whatever the case, it is clear that the new restrictions serve as another scourge for business owners. In response, Montgomery and Delaware County approved new grant programs to help keep restaurants afloat for the duration of the mandates.

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