In response to a recent rise in COVID-19 cases that Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald called “alarming,” the county is prohibiting on-site consumption of alcohol at bars and restaurants. The order takes effect at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 30.
Officials believe bars, and restaurants serving alcohol, are key locations for transmission of the disease. Case numbers began rising two weeks after bars and restaurants were permitted to operate as the county entered the green phase of reopening from the pandemic shutdown.
Fitzgerald also said the county will strictly enforce rules requiring patrons and staff at businesses to wear face coverings. County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen recommended a 14-day quarantine for those who have traveled out of state, or else that travelers receive two negative test results for the virus 48 hours apart before breaking quarantine.
“We actually had more positive tests in the past two days than we had in the previous two weeks,” said Fitzgerald. 96 cases were reported Sunday, for a total of 393 in the past week.
In a rare Sunday press briefing that highlighted the seriousness of the problem, Bogen said officials were seeking to avoid the “sledgehammer” approach to the virus taken in mid-March, when the first cases were reported in the county and all nonessential businesses were closed.
Instead, county officials are targeting those businesses and activities most implicated in the new surge of cases, according to information gathered by the county’s contact tracers, said Bogen. "We need a strategic and selective approach to identify the sources of the infections and shut them down and limit visits to these locations or events."
A key component of the green phase, as determined by state officials, was the reopening of the county’s bars and restaurants at half-capacity, albeit with physical distancing and masking requirements.
“A few common themes we have seen from the case investigations are out-of-state travel, often with nightlife during travel, and going to local bars and restaurants,” Bogen said.
Bogen cited travel to COVID-19 hot spots like Florida, Texas and Carolina beaches. But she added that many of the new cases reported returned from such places and then hitting Pittsburgh bars in the South Side and Oakland.
“When people drink alcohol, they tend to lose inhibition, talk louder, get closer to one another, and can’t adhere to the physical distancing and mask recommendations,” she said.
Bogen said restaurants did not appear to be hot spots for the virus, which is spread via invisible droplets of respiratory fluid. “There is some report of restaurants [as virus vectors], but they’re all restaurants with large bars as well,” she said.
In contrast to new cases in March and April, which primarily affected older people, “these are primarily cases among young people,” Bogen said, noting that 75 percent of new cases affected people ages 18 to 49.
“I am concerned because the rate of cases is rising rapidly, and because most of the cases do not have a known source,” she said.
Such cases are instances of “community spread,” which worries health officials. “We went from no cases of community spread to a lot very quickly,” Bogen said.
Furthermore, most of the new cases reported “very mild to no symptoms,” and that could also mean trouble, she said.
“The scenario that worries me the most is that these young adults, in their twenties to forties, have parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents in high-risk [age groups], and that they may be unknowingly bringing the infection to them,” said Bogen.
The county has not seen a large increase in hospitalizations or deaths linked to the virus, but Bogen said that might be coming in a week or so – two weeks after this wave of new cases would have exposed others to the disease. She said that while about 2.5 percent of adults under 50 are hospitalized for COVID-19, the percentage rises to 12 percent for those ages 65 to 75, and even higher for older people.
Bogen said that while more Allegheny County residents are being tested, the rise in cases does reflect a true surge in infections. She cited the higher rate of tests coming back positive, which had dropped to between 1 and 2 percent, but in recent days rose back to over 6 percent.
People who have been in contact with an infected person are instructed by the county to self-quarantine for 14 days. Bogen said a few people have flouted the order, but she said going forward the county would be enforcing it strictly.
Fitzgerald emphasized that this was not a return to the yellow phase of reopening, which in any case would be determined by state officials. However, he said the new restrictions are necessary.
“If we don’t get ahead of it now, we will have to shut down many more business, and hurt our economy, and put more people out of work going forward,” he said.
Bogen was asked whether the county might have gone green too soon.
“I think when people heard the color green, they interpreted it as ‘go,’ rather than the guidance as it was stated,” she said, citing the rules for masking and physical distancing. “You drive by bars and there are people crowded together. Had we followed the green guidance carefully, we might not be in this situation.”