Governors and mayors moved rapidly on Monday to slow the galloping spread of COVID-19, reviving restrictions on businesses and individuals that public health experts say are urgently needed again amid a nationwide viral surge.
The new measures will be felt from coast to coast. In a mirror of the country’s spring shutdown, California took some of the most dramatic steps, with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing he was pulling the state’s “emergency brake” to confront disease spread that was “simply without precedent in California’s pandemic history.”
The vast majority of the state – 94% of California’s 40 million people – will now be living under the most restrictive stage of reopening, with indoor dining, fitness center workouts and religious services all suspended. California, Newsom said at a Monday news conference, has no choice if it wants to arrest the virus’s accelerating pace.
“Bottom line is, we’re moving from a marathon to a sprint,” he said.
New Jersey and Philadelphia also announced new restrictions, following the enactment of tougher new measures in recent days in states including Washington, Michigan and Iowa.
The data explain why: The country racked up 1 million new coronavirus cases in a single week, with additions of at least 100,000 cases each day for nearly two weeks running. With the death toll touching 246,000, the grim milestone of a quarter-million dead Americans is likely to be reached by the weekend.
“It’s going up exponentially, and it will keep doing that until we take measures to stop it,” said Mike Levy, professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “No one gets how quickly these things spread.”
Monday started with promise, as drugmaker Moderna became the second major pharmaceutical company – following Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, last week – to announce impressive results in its vaccine trials. The news sent stocks climbing, and prompted hopeful musings from normally stone-faced infectious-disease specialists that the pandemic’s end may be in sight.
Yet experts also cautioned that a perilous winter lurks. The nation’s current spike in infections – its third – is its most severe to date. With families and friends expected to gather for Thanksgiving next week, the spread of the novel coronavirus could easily worsen.
But that is not inevitable, and experts say the measures announced Monday – if heeded – could have a pronounced impact in drawing down infections, just as they did in the spring.
“By changing our behavior, we can get this curve not just to flatten but to tumble down precipitously,” Levy said. “This isn’t forever. The measures we are taking now are so we can get back to everything we miss.”
Yet even more so than during the nation’s spring and summer waves, officials are battling widespread fatigue and impatience. State and local officials are also working in the shadow of a federal government that is increasingly distracted and disjointed, with President Donald Trump focused on the election he lost and his inner circle offering advice that contradicts scientific evidence.
After Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced new COVID restrictions Sunday, Trump’s top coronavirus adviser, Scott Atlas, tweeted a call for people to “rise up” against the measures. Whitmer on Monday described the tweet as “incredibly reckless.”
President-elect Joe Biden also chastised the administration Monday, saying government officials need to be allowed to cooperate with his team to ensure an effective transition. “More people may die if we don’t coordinate,” he said.
As has been true throughout America’s experience with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Monday’s state and local measures reflected a highly variable response depending on geography.
Philadelphia, for instance, elected to impose restrictions that don’t apply elsewhere in Pennsylvania, with city leaders issuing orders that take effect Friday and extend at least until Jan. 1.
High schools and colleges must move to online instruction only. Theaters, bowling alleys and arcades, museums, libraries, casinos and senior day services will be closed. Indoor gatherings in public and private spaces are limited to a single household, including weddings and funerals. Houses of worship must return to limited capacity of five people per 1,000 square feet, or 5% of maximum occupancy.
The restrictions are meant to “help flatten the epidemic curve, prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, and reduce the number of COVID-19 deaths,” the city said in a news release.
Philadelphia County reported some of the lowest rates of the year for new infections until the trend began to show signs of reversal around October, and rates have climbed steadily since. The seven-day average of new cases in Philadelphia County doubled to 802 cases Monday from a weekly average of 390 two weeks ago, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
Next door, in New Jersey, authorities also decided it was time to hunker down. The state was hammered in the spring, then enjoyed a relatively low level of infection through the summer. But now the virus is resurging. The state’s numbers for the weekend were the highest it has recorded.
“Our highest case counts are now no longer from when this virus first began,” said Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. “They come now, when we are grappling with pandemic fatigue.”
Murphy on Monday capped indoor gatherings at no more than 10 people and limited outdoor gatherings to 150.
California’s new measures are significantly tighter.
After cases fell in August and September, then stayed relatively low in October, they nearly doubled in the past week, climbing from a daily average of around 6,000 to nearly 10,000 new cases Monday.
To slow the surge, Newsom said 30 counties will go back a reopening tier, with 28 of them moving to the most restrictive “purple” level that requires closure of many nonessential indoor business operations. Purple counties are ones reporting more than seven cases per day per 100,000 people and where the positivity rate for testing is above 8%.
A total of 41 counties are now in the purple tier, including Orange, Santa Clara and Santa Barbara, Newsom said. Last week, 13 counties were in that dire category.
Restaurants, gyms and places of worship in these hot spots must be outdoors only, while bars must close, according to the state guidelines. Workers in nonessential offices are required to work remotely.
Newsom also said that he was considering a statewide curfew but that he was still reviewing research to determine how effective it would be.
California’s response came a day after Washington state and Michigan both announced a slate of new rules amid rising COVID rates. All three states are run by Democratic governors.
Republican-led states have been more tepid about new restrictions, with many of those leaders having spent months insisting that economic recovery must take precedence over controlling the virus.
Still, some GOP leaders have been forced to act as the numbers have spiraled upward and hospitals have felt the strain. In Iowa and Nebraska, state leaders announced new restrictions on gatherings last week. And in North Dakota – home of the nation’s fastest-rising COVID rate – Republican Gov. Doug Burgum abruptly reversed months of resistance to a mask mandate Friday night.
But even as the fall outbreak touches virtually every corner of the country, wide disparities in the rules remain, which could limit their effectiveness, said Geoff Baird, a pathology specialist at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Washington state may have broad new restrictions that prohibit most indoor gatherings. But that isn’t necessarily true in states nearby, where people may be tempted to gather for a Thanksgiving meal.
“These restrictions are exactly what we need to be doing. This public health stuff actually does work,” Baird said. “But it’s a problem that there’s such a scattershot response. People do travel.”
– – –
The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez, Kim Bellware, Katie Shepherd, Brittany Shammas and Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.