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By Jamie Martines of Spotlight PA
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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania will lift most coronavirus-related restrictions on Memorial Day, state officials said Tuesday, as counties see cases plateau or decline. But the state’s universal masking order will remain in place until more people are vaccinated.
As of May 31, there will no longer be capacity limits on businesses like restaurants, bars, nightclubs, theaters, and gyms, as well as at events like fairs, festivals, concerts, and sporting events, the Department of Health announced.
People are ordered to continue wearing masks outside of their homes, except when participating in certain activities, until 70% of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated.
So far, about 42% of Pennsylvanians 18 and older — 4,248,011 people — are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Coronavirus cases in about half of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have been trending downward the past two weeks, while the number of new cases each day in most other counties has started to level off, according to state health department data compiled by Spotlight PA. Hospitalizations have also started to decrease since peaking in late April.
“With millions of Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated, it’s time to plan the transition back to normal,” Sen. Art Haywood (D., Philadelphia) said in a statement accompanying the health department’s announcement. “This action today is a key step forward.”
Haywood serves alongside three other lawmakers with officials from the state health department and emergency management agency on a state COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force, which contributed to the decision to lift the mitigation orders.
Infectious disease experts said they weren’t surprised to see the restrictions lifted but still urged caution, even as cases decrease and vaccination rates climb.
“Just because we are starting to relax those does not necessarily mean that it’s safe to be in a crowded place with a lot of people, especially if you are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Nathan Shively, an infectious disease specialist with Allegheny Health Network.
The number of COVID-19 patients at AHN’s Pittsburgh-area hospitals is declining, but Shively said the cases they are seeing are trending younger and are almost exclusively unvaccinated people.
Masks aren’t going to disappear completely once Pennsylvania hits its vaccination goal — in fact, they’re likely to stick around in health-care settings, said Dr. Graham Snyder, director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC.
People who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, including those who are older or who have other health complications, might want to continue wearing masks if they are in situations where they think they might be exposed, he said. That’s because masks prevent people who are infected from spreading the virus, and help to protect others from being exposed.
“There are plenty of masks, it doesn’t cause harm, it’s just an inconvenience,” Snyder said, “but one that’s incredibly effective at keeping people safe, so I don’t think masking should go away if we reach 70% vaccination.”
The announcement came a day after state officials in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York said they will ease restrictions by mid-May. The Biden administration on Tuesday also announced it aims to partially vaccinate at least 70% of people in the U.S. older than 17 by July 4.
To reach that goal, the administration will start diverting doses from areas where demand has slowed and send them to states where more people want the vaccine. The administration is also asking states and pharmacies to make more walk-in vaccine appointments available.
In addition, federal resources will be used to support small, pop-up and mobile vaccination clinics to focus on hard-to-reach people, and funding will be available for community-based organizations and states for vaccine outreach and education efforts.
As of Tuesday, about 56% of people older than 17 nationwide had received at least one vaccine dose, CDC data show.
Pennsylvania’s announcement on Tuesday made the distinction that the mask mandate will remain until 70% of residents are fully vaccinated.
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