In his assessment, Stephen Santa took the Pennsylvania coronavirus lockdown seriously: he pretty much only went to grocery stores and picked up takeaway once a week to help out Pittsburgh’s restaurants.
Whatever Santa and everyone else in Pittsburgh were doing it seemed to be working: the city garnered a fraction of the coronavirus cases during the Spring Shutdown, while the other side of Pennsylvania flared into a hot spot.
With a state-mandated masking ordinance, Pittsburgh’s gyms, salons, bars and restaurants received permission to reopen in early June in front of many parts of Pennsylvania as part of the so-called “green” phase in Governor Tom Wolf’s three-level traffic light-colored reopening plan.
Santa immediately went to a nearby Italian restaurant to eat in the courtyard with a few relatives.
When they got there, it was practically empty around 5pm on a Tuesday. When they left it was packed inside: every table full, no masks and no one 1 meter apart, no matter 2 meters apart.
“I think in part a lot of people saw the word ‘green’ and it meant ‘go’ and ‘we’re going back to the way things were,'” said Santa.
Less than three weeks later, officials in Allegheny County – home of Pittsburgh and a population of 1.2 million – raised the alarm about a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The culprit? Especially people in their twenties, thirties, and forties who told contact tracers that they went to or worked in bars and restaurants, district officials said.
For example, a cascade of orders began in July, closing bars and restaurants or restricting dine-in service as Allegheny County battled its outbreak not to turn into a full-blown boom like the southern and western states.
State health officials even blocked an agreement between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Pittsburgh Pirates to let the Canadian baseball team play at PNC Park in Pittsburgh during the pandemic, indicating the increase in infections in the area.
Pittsburgh’s history can be inevitable for any part of the United States.
It may be a victim of other places that welcomed the virus containment. In a harsh criticism last week, Wolf attacked “a lack of national coordination” that led other states to avoid strict containment measures and spread the virus back to Pennsylvania: “We don’t want to become Florida.” We don’t want to become Texas. We don’t want to be Arizona. “
It can also be inflicted by the people who live there themselves.
Dr. Donald S. Burke, professor of epidemiology and dean emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, said a preliminary review of Google mobility data showed no increase in people visiting companies in June.
This is in line with an outbreak fueled by a narrow section of the population: for example, by younger people who go to bars and restaurants.
Pittsburgh could be considered in a second set of hot-spot cities, like the southern and western states: less dense than New York and Philadelphia, but still fertile ground for the virus after reopening, Burke said.
“The real question is, will we overwhelm hospital capacity in our region, will we have the number of ICU beds and ventilators?” Said Burke.
So far, coronavirus deaths in Allegheny County have been stable, slightly above the June pace. Despite the tripling from mid-June, hospital stays with county or state officials are not yet worrying.
When Allegheny County’s bars and restaurants reopened in June, many employees were concerned about the safety of the upscale Asian fusion restaurant in the East End of Pittsburgh where Amelia Benson worked.
They urged all staff to meet to discuss the security protocol.
They were each given several black cotton masks and said these should be part of the restaurant uniform. Customers should wear masks indoors unless they were seated at their table, the managers said.
However, the enforcement of the staff to wear masks was negligent when the customers were out of sight.
“Everyone showed up in a mask and then immediately took it off because it was too hard to hear orders screaming,” Benson said.
On June 30, Benson received an email that an employee had tested positive – six days after taking a test.
Like Benson, Larisa Mednis worked on the same last shift as the employee who tested positive.
It was upsetting, she said, “because the people who worked that day weren’t told who it was, we didn’t know how close we were and how much it could have spread around the building than we did were there. At that moment there was much that was unknown. “
Benson and Mednis both tested negative.
It was also difficult to monitor customers. Some wore masks, sat down, took them off, and then stood up to communicate with people at other tables.
One night a group of three came in maskless. When they said they had to wear masks, they replied that they all had breathing problems and were exempt from the state order for health reasons, Mednis said.
“I don’t want to say they weren’t telling the truth, but it felt like they were attacking us or trying to pick a fight,” Mednis said.
Susan Williams, who runs the Take a Break Bar with her sister, which attracts restaurant and bar workers from the nearby Strip in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, found it difficult to enforce a mask arrangement.
When customers walked in without a mask, they let it go, unsure of who was exempt from disability laws, and felt left out of questions due to healthcare privacy laws.
“It’s not our right to ask her that,” said Williams.
After Santa Claus got home from his meal, he decided to raise the matter with the management of the restaurant. The manager on the phone was dismissive – asking if Santa had brought a tape measure to check the distance between the tables – so Santa emailed the owner.
The owner offered to pay for Santa’s meal that evening, as well as the take-away meals that Santa got there during the shutdown, then told him, “Please don’t ever go to my restaurant again.”
Beaty reported from New York and Levy from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Follow Thalia Beaty on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tkbeaty and Marc Levy at https://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.