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New Statewide COVID Restrictions Include Renewed Ban on Indoor Service for Restaurants and Taverns

In an effort to mitigate the growing spread of COVID-19 during the end-of-year holidays, Governor Tom Wolf and PA Secretary of Health Rachel Levine have introduced new restrictions on certain businesses and gathering places.

The measures will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on December 12th and remain in place until 8 a.m. on January 4th, 2021. The restrictions largely mirror those imposed in Philadelphia by Mayor James Kenney on November 20th which have been criticized and challenged in court by a coalition of the city’s restaurant and tavern operators.

Under the Governor’s new order, all in-person indoor dining at businesses in the retail food services industry, including but not limited to bars, restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, social clubs, and private catered events, is prohibited throughout the Commonwealth. Outdoor dining, take-out food service, and take-out alcohol sales are permitted and may continue, subject to any limitations or restrictions imposed by Pennsylvania law, or this or any other Order issued by the Secretary of Health or the Governor.

In addition, indoor gatherings and events of more than 10 people are prohibited. Places of worship are excluded from the new restrictions during religious services but are strongly encouraged not to worship in person.

In a news release, the Governor’s office stated that the restrictions were based in part on newly published academic research that used the tracking of cellphone locations in 10 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, including the Philadelphia area, to link “crowded indoor venues” like restaurants, gyms, cafes, and churches to “some 8 in 10 new infections in the early months of the U.S. coronavirus epidemic.”

The study compiled data from March 8th through May 9th. This period largely overlaps with the Governor’s first order closing bars and restaurants. Those restrictions began in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions on March 16th and were extended statewide on March 21st. Throughout late March, the Governor issued stay-at-home orders in selected high-infection counties leading to a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1st. All Pennsylvania counties remained under the stay-at-home order at least through May 8th.

In their criticism of the Philadelphia indoor dining ban, the city’s restaurant and tavern operators have argued, among other points, that they have adopted stronger COVID mitigation protocols and installed risk-reduction devices and equipment at great cost to their businesses since stay-at-home orders were lifted later in the spring.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Pennsylvania had 509,330 people employed in food preparation and service occupations in May 2019, including 96,210 waiters and waitresses, as well as 32,450 bartenders, 22,060 dishwashers, 16,330 dining room attendants and bartender helpers, and 15,930 restaurant or lounge hosts and hostesses.

The sector accounted for 8.6% of all Pennsylvania employment. The only sectors with higher employment rates were office and administrative support, transportation and material moving, and sales and related occupations.

In a survey conducted recently by the National Restaurant Association, half of Pennsylvania restaurateurs said they could be out of business by next summer without additional financial relief from the federal government. A new University of Pittsburgh study found that restaurant employment in the city and its surrounding counties has declined by 35% during the pandemic. Thirty-one thousand people have lost their restaurant jobs in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.

Pennsylvania Senate Democrats have proposed the allocation of $300 million in state relief directly to restaurants, taverns, and hospitality industry. The funding is part of the $4 billion PA CARES 21 plan and would be funded largely by the state’s low-interest borrowing. General Assembly Republicans have criticized the plan.

Additional measures instituted by the Governor and Secretary of Health in the new COVID policy are attendance limits on outdoor gatherings and events, occupancy limits for businesses, the closure of indoor gyms and fitness centers, the closure of indoor entertainment facilities, and restrictions on extracurricular school activities including sports.

With Coronavirus Infections and Unemployment Rates on the Rise, Federal Jobless Aid May Soon Expire

Amid the ongoing resurgence of COVID-19, the nation’s new unemployment claims jumped by 137,000 – more than 19% -- for the week ending December 5th, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

unemploymentThere were 853,000 new claims for the week ending December 5th, compared to 716,000 for the previous week. Before the start of the Coronavirus in March, new claims typically were about 225,000 each week, the Associated Press reported.

“The latest figures coincide with a surging viral outbreak that appears to be weakening the job market and the economy and threatening to derail any recovery,” the news agency reported. “Consumers thus far haven’t spent as much this holiday shopping season as they have in previous years, according to credit and debit card data. And in November, employers added jobs at the slowest pace since April. Restaurants, bars, and retailers all cut jobs last month.”

“The total number of people who are receiving state-provided unemployment aid rose for the first time in three months to 5.8 million from 5.5 million. That suggests that some companies have sharply pulled back on hiring.”

National Public Radio reported that jobless claims are jumping sharply just as critical Coronavirus aid programs are set to expire. In addition to the 19% increase in claims for traditional Unemployment Compensation (UC), claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) jumped by 48%. PUA provides financial aid to self-employed, contractors, and gig economy workers who have lost their jobs.

“Together, the claims suggest nearly 1.3 million people were newly out of work last week,” NPR reported.

The latest claims data were revealed just days after the Labor Department reported a sharp slowdown in job growth for November, when just 245,000 new jobs were created, “down from a revised 610,000 jobs in October.”

This worsening employment outlook coincides with the imminent end of the PUA program and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which grants 13 additional weeks of jobless benefits to individuals who exhaust their initial 26 weeks of UC or PUA.

Congress adopted PUA and PEUC in March as part of the federal CARES Act. The programs will expire on December 26th without additional Congressional action and would cause about 13 million Americans to lose their benefits.

In a December 7th news release, Governor Wolf stated that 500,000 Pennsylvanians would lose their benefits if the federal programs lapse. However, the state’s Department of Human Services offers many programs to help individuals who have lost their income, including Medicaid (health insurance), CHIP (children’s health insurance), SNAP (food assistance), LIHEAP (home heating assistance), subsidized childcare, and temporary assistance for the needy. Program applications can be accessed online. Or by calling 1-800-692-7462.

The PA CARES 21 plan proposed by PA Senate Democrats would allocate $1.068 billion to extend PUA and PEUC within the Commonwealth as part of a broader $4 billion relief package. Republicans in the General Assembly have rejected the proposal.
On December 7th, the Pennsylvania State Data Center released a statewide map depicting the change in the unemployment rate in each of the Commonwealth’s 67 counties between March 2020 and September 2020. The hardest hit counties saw rate increases of more than 3%, including Philadelphia, Delaware, Monroe, Cameron, and Fulton. In the west, several counties had increases between 2.1% and 3%, including Allegheny and Erie.

Congress Extends Deadline for COVID Relief Negotiations, But Lawmakers Still at Odds on Liability Protection

Congress provided itself an additional week for negotiations on a new COVID-19 relief package by adopting a one-week defense spending bill that will postpose a potential government shutdown until December 19th at the earliest.

Yet, the issue of liability waivers for businesses and other employers remains a sticking point in bipartisan relief talks, according to

“A group of House and Senate lawmakers from both sides of the aisle has fleshed out details of their $908 billion Coronavirus relief plan, except for the two thorniest issues: business liability protections and state and local aid,” the news agency reported.

In a six-page proposal circulated among lawmakers earlier this week, the coalition said it had agreed to provide $160 billion in direct aid to states and localities and to protect employers to some extent from pandemic-related lawsuits. The proposal did not specify the types of liability protections under consideration. The plan also includes aid for small businesses, healthcare, rental assistance, education, and other sectors.

U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware reportedly described the proposed liability protection as a six-month federal moratorium on pandemic-related lawsuits that would allow individual states time to develop and adopt their own liability protections. Separately, Republicans have proposed providing businesses with blanket immunity except in cases of gross negligence.

“Some Democrats not directly involved in the (bipartisan) group’s negotiations suggested Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was preventing Republicans from compromising,” RollCall reported. “Senate Finance ranking member Rob Wyden (of Oregon) said McConnell was continuing his streak of trying to ‘gut’ bipartisan efforts and then lay the blame on Democrats ahead of two Senate runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5.”

Pennsylvania’s Republican-led General Assembly has already adopted legislation to shield employers from liability for pandemic-related injuries by employees or patrons, but Governor Wolf vetoed the legislation and Republicans didn’t have enough votes to override the veto.

The legislation would have “undermined COVID-19 mitigation efforts and endangered the public health by enacting overly broad immunity protections from civil liability due to the pandemic,” Wolf said, according to PhillyVoice.

Without COVID Protections from OSHA, Many States Are Adopting Their Own Workplace Safety Regulations

States are increasingly adopting new workplace regulations to protect workers from the Coronavirus in the continuing absence of federal protections from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Politico reported that 14 states have instituted new safety regulations that “will likely serve as a blueprint for new national standards promised by (President-elect) Biden.”
“Oregon last month began requiring employers to supply masks, develop infection control plans, and notify staff of ill coworkers,” the news organization reported.

“California rushed out 21 pages of business mandates covering everything from proper ventilation and social distancing to testing, reporting, and quarantine procedures. In New Jersey, more than 1,000 complaints of alleged workplace health and safety violations have poured in from workers in the four weeks since the state enacted its own new safety program.”

During the current presidential administration, OSHA has issued only safety recommendations, but not enforceable rules.

On November 19th, the National Academy of Sciences released a report stating that the livestock processing industry has been associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases (6% to 8% of the nation’s total) and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths (3% to 4% of the nation’s total) as of July 21st.

Last month, reported “72,000 Food Workers Have Contracted COVID-19. OSHA Is Ignoring Them.”

Referring to the state-level protections adopted by California, MotherJones reported that regulators in the state have fined agricultural employers a combined $400,000 for violations linked to the pandemic. That’s twice as much as the fines levied by OSHA for the entire nation.

MotherJones cited the Food and Environment Reporting Network’s COVID-19 database for the following figures: more than 1,400 food and farm facilities have had confirmed cases of the virus and nearly 72,000 workers have contracted the virus, while at least 327 have died.