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• On-premises alcohol consumption to end
• Face mask rules to be enforced
Update: At 7:51 p.m., county officials announced that on-premises liquor consumption must end immediately, but enforcement will not begin until 5 p.m. Tuesday. This story also has been updated with remarks from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
As COVID-19 cases set another new record high in Allegheny County, officials have announced new restrictions on bars and restaurants and are recommending all travelers self-quarantine for two weeks.
At a press conference Sunday, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said “these are severe steps,” but added, “we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Overnight, 96 new cases were confirmed in Allegheny County overnight, breaking the record of 90 cases set Saturday. Those are the highest numbers since the county first began tracking COVID-19 in March.
Last week, county officials said that through contact tracing, they determined that many new COVID-19 patients had been spending time in bars and restaurants.
“While most residents and businesses have been following the rules, these requirements and mitigation measures address the hot spots that have been identified during case investigations,” Fitzgerald said.
On Sunday afternoon, Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, issued an order forbidding all bars and restaurants to stop selling alcohol for on-site consumption.
The order, she said, is effective immediately, although it will not be enforced until after 5 p.m. Tuesday.
In addition, all restaurant patrons will be required to wear masks at all times, except when eating or drinking.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Sunday night issued a statement commending the county health department for taking action.
“This was the right move to work to stop the recent spike of COVID-19 cases in its tracks,” Wolf said. “We cannot become complacent in practicing the measures we know can protect everyone from the spread of this very contagious virus.”
Under the state’s pandemic emergency order, masks are required in all businesses, but county officials said they wll begin strictly enforcing the rule. Suspected violations will be investigated by the county Health Department, Fitzgerald said, and businesses that flout the rule will be ordered closed for one week.
In addition, restaurants will be held to physical distancing requirements and will need to stick to 50 percent of rated occupancy, as ordered by Wolf and the state Health Department.
“While we’ve taken significant steps to track and reduce the spread of this virus, we are still seeing significant increases,” Bogen said, adding that the steps were being taken under the authority of the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law.
That law, passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1955 and updated several times, including in 2002, gives local, county and state health officials broad authority to stop the spread of communicable diseases.
Bogen said she also is recommending that anyone who has traveled out-of-state recently — especially to coronavirus hotspots in the southern U.S. — self-quarantine for 14 days, or until they have had two negative coronavirus tests at least 48 hours apart.
A county spokeswoman said that over the past week, health department investigators found that many people newly infected with COVID-19 had traveled out-of-state, often to hot spots in the country like Florida, Texas and the Carolinas.
“Recommending quarantine and testing after travel will help reduce spread from those individuals and I am confident our county has the testing capacity to handle it,” Bogen said Sunday.
COVID-19 tests are now available at Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies, MedExpress and the county’s public health centers, county officials said, including the McKeesport Family Health Center on Lysle Boulevard. A searchable map is posted on the county’s website.
Allegheny County and other parts of southwestern Pennsylvania moved from the “yellow” phase of pandemic restrictions to the “green” phase on June 5. SARS-CoV2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has an incubation period of up to two weeks.
Bars and restaurants, especially in Pittsburgh’s South Side and Lawrenceville neighborhoods, have been crowded, especially on weekends, since then.
County spokeswoman Amie Downs said there has been a “very rapid increase” in the number of positive coronavirus tests.
Just two weeks ago, she said, only 1 to 2 percent of coronavirus tests have been positive. Over the past few days, Downs said, the number of positive tests has increased to 6 percent.
In his statement Sunday, Wolf said he hopes that the county’s actions result in “swift containment” and sets an example for other parts of the state to follow.
“Even if you believe you will not get sick, you can, and you can spread the virus to someone who may not be able to recover as easily,” he said.
Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published June 28, 2020.