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Carney to lift capacity limits on restaurants, businesses May 21

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Governor John Carney has announced that restaurants and other businesses will be allowed to fully reopen, but will still keep to social distancing guidelines come May 21. | DBT FILE PHOTO

Within 24 hours of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut officials announcing they would soon reopen businesses, Gov. John Carney decided to lift all capacity limits on Delaware restaurants, retail and other businesses as of May 21.

Restaurants, retail, and other businesses will be able to use as much capacity as social distancing requirements allow, but that threshold has been lowered from 6 feet to 3 feet. Events with over 250 people – indoors or outdoors – will require plan approval from the Delaware Division of Public Health.

The May 21 date will precede the Memorial Day holiday weekend, likely benefitting the state’s tourism industry. The date comes after New Jersey’s planned May 19 reopening, but also 10 days earlier than Pennsylvania’s May 31 date.

Maryland lifted capacity limits in early March, while Connecticut state officials announced it would reopen to full capacity come May 19. In Pennsylvania, restaurants went to 75% capacity if the venue joined a statewide COVID-compliance registry, starting before Easter. Pennsylvania officials announced on Tuesday all capacity limits would be removed as of May 31.

During his weekly press conference, Carney said that his decision was driven not by policy decisions made in Delaware’s border states, but the data. The seven-day average of new cases is 227, a decrease of 32% from two weeks ago. There are 128 people who are hospitalized as a result of COVID-19 complications, as of May 4.

“The data is trending down at a really low level to where we’ve been, and vaccination rates are significantly up …  We also know a factor clearly was that the states around us that are getting healthier too,” Carney said. “We’re a small state, with porous borders people coming back and forth and so those their positive cases are going down the severity of their cases are going down and vaccinations are going up.”

This announcement marks the first dramatic move for Delaware’s economic reopening since last summer when Carney introduced a phased approach. But that plan was ultimately abandoned when restaurants and many other businesses were capped at 60% capacity in June when COVID-19 cases spiked.

Restaurants and businesses stayed at 60% capacity until the winter, when state officials tightened restrictions in efforts to slow the spread during the holiday season. In February, Carney allowed restaurants to reopen to 50%, where they remained for weeks. Carrie Leishman, the president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA), pointed out the large disparity between small businesses and large outdoor events, specifically NASCAR returning to the Dover International Speedway for the weekend of May 15.

“We are very pleased with today’s announcement of easing restrictions after a 14-month campaign to advance restaurants reopening in a safe way,” Leishman told the Delaware Business Times. “Come May 21, Delawareans can enjoy freedom of eating in a restaurant safely. Our restaurants are grateful for the patrons that embraced them and helped them survive this.”

Masks will still be required to be worn indoors, including at restaurants when not seated at a table, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The statewide mask mandate for public indoor places has been in place since April 2020, but Carney has loosened restrictions for low-risk sports under the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association masking regulations, but not for spectators.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has slightly eased its stance on mask use for vaccinated people last week, no longer recommending wearing one at smaller outdoor events. But the CDC recommended they continue to mask up at crowded outdoor venues and indoors.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday that the state would lift all remaining restrictions by Memorial Day weekend, but would keep the mask mandate until the state reached the 70% vaccine threshold for herd immunity. Carney said that he would not repeal the mask mandate based on vaccine numbers, but noted that people will head outside in warmer months, where the risk is lower.

“There’s not a requirement to wear your mask outdoors, but you need to have it in your pocket because you go indoors time to time, to the Wawa or the grocery store. But you will be much more comfortable in those places once you are vaccinated,” Carney said. “We are asking people to be careful, particularly if they’re not vaccinated, when they’re indoors.”

Delaware providers had administered 762,869 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as of May 3. More than 53% of Delawareans 16 and older have received at least one shot.

Breaking it down by county, at least 58% of eligible Sussex County residents have received at least one dose. In New Castle County, 53% residents 16 and older received one dose while 46% Kent County residents have gotten at least one shot.

Delaware state officials have opened access to the vaccine, with some walk-up clinics and appointments available at medical providers and pharmacies. A list of participating providers can be found on the state’s website at coronavirus.delaware.gov/vaccine/where-can-i-get-my-vaccine.

Carney declined to specifically answer whether he would once again impose restrictions in the colder months if Delaware does not reach herd immunity at that point, but again advocated for residents to get their vaccine dose.

“Last year, we had a non-eventful flu season. That’s a tremendous benefit of voluntary efforts,” he said. “I expect that our vaccination rate will continue to increase, we’re going to really lean into it. We will rely on Delawareans to encourage their family members and friends to get vaccinated, so that we can be more open and free.”

For Leishman, the DRA will now focus on helping the First State’s restaurant industry recover, as for months the sector has been on a rollercoaster of capacity restriction and now struggle with finding enough employees.

“It’s been a struggle for a lot of restaurants, not being able to serve at full capacity. We plan on working with elected officials to find opportunities and solutions,” she said.

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