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November 17, 2020

Pennsylvania stiffens mask mandate in response to 'unrelenting' COVID-19 cases

Out-of-state travelers must test negative for the coronavirus before entry

Government COVID-19
Pennsylvania COVID Dr. Levine Office of Gov. Tom Wolf/

New COVID-19 restrictions require travelers to test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours of entering Pennsylvania. This file photo shows Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine during a press briefing in October 2020.

New COVID-19 restrictions imposed Tuesday by Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine are aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus during the holiday season. 

Beginning Friday, the following requirements will be in place: 

• Anyone who visits Pennsylvania must have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of entering the state. Travelers who cannot obtain a test, or refuse to take one, must quarantine for 14 days. Residents returning home also must have a negative test unless they commuting from work or received out-of-state medical treatment.

• Masks will be required indoors whenever someone from outside a household is present – even if physical distance can be maintained. The requirement extends to personal homes, though Levine acknowledged it will be difficult to enforce. Masks also must be worn outdoors unless people can stay at least six feet from non-household members. 

• Colleges and universities must develop a testing strategy to limit COVID-19 spread as students return from winter break. That includes testing all students, conducting regular screenings throughout the semester and expanding capacity for quarantining.

Levine quoted a White House COVID-19 Task Force report noting there is "aggressive, unrelenting, expanding, broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties." 

The report included projections from the University of Washington that predict Pennsylvania will run out of intensive care unit beds by December, if things do not change. Levine recommended hospitals prepare for an upcoming surge by pushing up elective procedures and potentially reduce them going forward.

And she called on residents to do their part to mitigate spread of the virus. 

"Wearing a mask is really one of the simplest steps we can take to stop the spread of COVID-19," she said. 

It is unclear whether the mask-wearing requirements will be enforced or what the consequences of violating them will be. Levine emphasized that the mandate is an order and "people are expected to comply." 

The announcement makes Pennsylvania the latest state to impose new restrictions in response to rapidly escalating COVID-19 cases. Dozens of states have reported their highest daily case totals in recent days. Hospitalizations have risen sharply, too. 

Pennsylvania reported 5,900 new cases Tuesday – a record high that brought its total case count to 275,513. As of Monday morning, there were 2,374 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 — 510 of them were in the intensive care unit and 258 were on ventilators.

Levine said she understands that not seeing loved ones, or traveling home, at the holidays will be challenging. 

"With freedom comes responsibility," she said. "We all have a responsibility to work toward a common good and, right now, that means following these orders and guidance in terms of stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania."

On Monday, Levine urged residents to "answer the call" for COVID-19 prevention by wearing face masks, social distancing and washing their hands.

"We need people to answer the call when a case investigator calls, a contact tracer calls, and provide them with information that can actually save someone's life," Levine said . "We can answer the call by wearing a mask. … We can answer the call by practicing social distancing, avoiding large and small gatherings, and staying away from people that are not a part of our immediate household."

Philadelphia also officials have announced significant social restrictions. Those restrictions, which take effect Friday and continue through the end of the year, prohibit indoor dining, limit outdoor gatherings and encourage people to avoid interacting with people outside their household. 

Similar steps have been taken in New Jersey, including limiting indoor dining, prohibiting bar seating and reducing gathering limits.  

Wolf met with other Governors in the Northeast to develop a plan of action to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the region after Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an 'emergency summit' last week.

This story is breaking and will be updated as more information becomes available.