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Carney restricts gatherings, dining amid viral surge

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Gov. John Carney discusses his Nov. 17 decision to renew restrictions amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – Gov. John Carney announced increased restrictions on gatherings and dining among other activities as state officials look to head off weeks of record high COVID-19 transmission going into the Thanksgiving holiday period.

The seven-day average for positive COVID-19 cases totaled more than 200 in parts of late April and early May but fell quite dramatically to under 100 in June. As of this week, they’ve climbed to a record high of more than 325. Delaware has seen nearly 29,500 positive cases through the pandemic and 736 deaths.

“I know this is difficult,” Carney said at his weekly Tuesday press conference. “And it’s difficult for me as governor to have to decide to put these restrictions in place. I can tell you, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”

Among the new measures, which will be enforced starting at 8 a.m. Monday, Nov. 23, are a maximum limit of 10 people for home indoor gatherings and 50 people for outdoor public gatherings. Up to 250 may be allowed outdoors with a state-approved plan.

Indoor gatherings outside of homes must be limited to 30% of a venue’s stated fire capacity, up to a cap of 50 people. This includes all events, such as weddings, funerals, religious services, performances, political gatherings, and events in public spaces including fire halls.

Carney’s order will also prohibit Delaware youth sports organizations, teams and venues from hosting or participating in tournaments with out-of-state teams, and prohibiting Delaware teams from competing out of state, effective at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1.

The measure that will likely draw the most scrutiny, however, is a reduction of indoor dining capacity for restaurants from 60% to 30%. Diners will also now be required to wear masks at all times other than when actively eating and must put them back on when waiters approach.

Restaurants will also have to battle the consumer confidence hit of officials consistently raising concerns about eating indoors. The business owners have struggled to regain their footing since the spring’s sit-down dining prohibition, turning to a variety of measures to try to boost sales in the summer and deeper into the fall and winter.

While sympathetic to the impact that the restrictions will have on restaurants, Dr. Karyl Rattay, the director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, said they were important to decreasing the spread.

“The reality is that when you are sitting indoors for an extended period of time, not socially distanced and having a mask off, it is a very risky setting and there is an abundant amount of science that is supporting restaurants being places where spread is occurring,” she said, noting that contact tracers in Delaware have also linked transmission to some restaurants.

Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, said that the contract tracing data that state officials were relying on “lacked merit,” citing statistically weak sampling and a lack of questioning regarding patients’ visits to other public places.

Leishman warned that the new restrictions would leave many restaurant workers unemployed and some restaurateurs to consider closing for good. Delaware restaurateurs have lost an estimated $900 million since March, the DRA reported.

“Although we continue to support action to protect the health of all Delawareans, we believe there is an unfounded impression that restaurants are part of the problem. As a result, restaurants will severely suffer from these inconsistent and restrictive mandates not applied to other industries,” she said, noting that other popular public spaces like malls and big-box stores were not affected by the latest restrictions. “Restaurants have become the convenient and easy scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns while COVID-19 documented spread is accelerating from private indoor gatherings and house parties.”

When asked why he didn’t propose closing down indoor dining down completely if it’s as risky as stated – Philadelphia has closed indoor dining until January – Carney said that it was part of “trying to strike a balance.”

“You have to have a healthy community and a healthy economy, it can’t be an either/or proposition,” he said.

Seeking to provide financial support to affected businesses, Carney announced that the DE Relief grant program will be expanded with an additional $25 million from the state’s federal CARES Act stimulus allocation. Qualifying businesses, including restaurants and bars, will receive double their original grant allocation. The deadline to apply for additional funds is Dec. 4

When asked if he believed Delaware would still be under these restrictions come Christmas and New Year’s Day, Carney said, “I hope not. I don’t want to be under them a day more than we have to.”

“I’d like to see the next set of [daily viral cases], going straight out flat from there, but I think my experience of the last nine months suggests that’s not going to be the case,” he added.

By Jacob Owens

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