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Delaware adds new restrictions on restaurants, indoor gatherings as COVID-19 cases surge

Sarah Gamard Brandon Holveck
Delaware News Journal

Delaware will soon limit indoor gatherings to 10 people and limit indoor dining at restaurants to no more than 30% capacity.

It's part of the latest round of restrictions that Gov. John Carney announced on Tuesday in response to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases that is sweeping across the state and country. These new restrictions in Delaware will go into effect at 8 a.m. on Monday.

The state is also restricting event venues, including weddings, places of worship, performances, political meetings and funerals. Starting Monday, those venues won't be allowed to host indoor gatherings at more than 30% capacity.

Governor John Carney speaks during his weekly press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Delaware Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

At restaurants, which will still be allowed to have outdoor seating, diners indoors will be required to wear masks until the food is served and whenever servers approach the table.

Outdoor gatherings will also be limited to 50 people, though up to 250 people are allowed if it's pre-approved by the Delaware Division of Public Health.

Starting two weeks from now, interstate youth sports will also be banned. Youth sports organizations, teams and venues won't be able to host or participate in tournaments with out-of-state teams starting 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 1. Delaware teams are prohibited from traveling across state lines for tournaments.

At gyms, masks must be worn at all times. Previously, they were optional while using aerobic exercise equipment such as stationary bikes and treadmills.

Governor John Carney speaks during his weekly press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Delaware Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

The Delaware Division of Public Health continues to recommend that K-12 public schools operate in a hybrid model with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

More grants are on the way for the businesses that are going to take a hit. The state is providing up to $25 million in additional relief for hundreds of businesses that have been disproportionately impacted by these decisions. Those businesses, including restaurants and bars, will get double their original grant allocation.

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"The actions that we're taking today are ones that I'd rather we not have to take," Carney said during his weekly coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, where he addressed the latest restrictions shortly after his administration announced them.

"I know this is difficult," Carney said. "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.”

Governor John Carney speaks during his weekly press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Delaware Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

The state's decisions follow a spike in positive COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks that is breaking records set in the spring and summer.

The state has set all-time highs for the average number of new cases in 12 of the past 13 days. 

Delaware on Tuesday reported 344 new cases, raising the seven-day average to an all-time record-breaking 347.3 new cases per day. The state also reported 12 new hospitalizations, bringing the total to 153 – the most since June 2. The percentage of tests that are positive, averaged over the past week, is at 5.5%, the highest mark since June 10.

Of the 29,552 people who have tested positive for the virus in Delaware, 739 have died.

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Carney said the restrictions were made in an "attempt to strike a balance" between increasing economic activity and protecting the health of the community.

"The conditions on the ground are getting worse and we need to take action targeted towards the venues where spread is occurring," Carney said.

Governor John Carney speaks during his weekly press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Delaware Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

In recent days, Delaware's neighboring states have each announced new restrictions to slow the spread of the virus, as cases increase nationwide. Many requirements targeted private gatherings and restaurants, where it's impossible to wear a mask the entire time.

Public health officials stress that wearing a mask is the most effective thing that people can do in mitigating the spread of the virus.

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Pennsylvania on Tuesday expanded its mask order to cover all indoor situations, and mandated people who are traveling to the state must test negative at least 72 hours before arrival or quarantine for 14 days. Maryland limited restaurant hours and capacity at event venues, and instituted new guidance for nursing homes and hospitals.

Philadelphia announced on Monday it will shut down indoor dining, as well as gyms and museums, through the end of the year.

Vehicles line up outside of Frawley Stadium for free COVID-19 testing Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Wilmington.

Delaware is still trying to recover from the initial wave of the virus after Carney ordered restaurants to halt dine-in services in mid-March – one of his first pandemic-related decisions that cost thousands of workers their jobs. Other businesses were forced to close, too, leading to an unprecedented deluge of business loan applications and unemployment claims that, for many, went unanswered for months.

It's why Tuesday's announcement drew criticism from business coalitions in the state.

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Delaware Restaurant Association CEO Carrie Leishman released a statement on Tuesday, saying the latest restrictions "will almost certainly devastate our industry and force many small businesses to close their doors for good."

Leishman's group has fought against Carney since the start of the pandemic, urging him not to further restrict a suffering industry where thousands of residents depend on bartending, waitressing and other food service jobs for income. On Monday, Leishman told Delaware Online/The News Journal that restaurants cannot afford any more restrictions while already operating at a loss.

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The Delaware director of the National Federation of Independent Business, Mike O’Halloran, said in a statement that the restrictions "could do irreparable damage" to the hospitality industry, which is "already on the brink" after eight months of suffering.

During Carney's press briefing, Delaware Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay reiterated that dining out with people outside immediate households is one of the riskiest behaviors Delawareans can engage in.

"When you are sitting there indoors for an extended period of time not socially distanced and having a mask off, it is a very risky setting," Rattay said. "There is an abundant amount of science now supporting it not being safe in restaurants."

She addressed the concern that the restrictions will negatively impact on restaurants. She stressed that the spread is not the fault of the restaurants, which are working hard to stay clean and sanitized.

"But the reality is, it is spread from respiratory droplets," she said. "It's hard to control that in a restaurant setting. ... (We) would not make this recommendation if it were not important in decreasing the spread."

Around 30 protesters gather outside the Carvel State Office building in Wilmington Tuesday afternoon ahead of Gov. John Carney's weekly coronavirus press briefing. The crowd is upset about new restrictions the governor will impose next week.

Delaware has already suffered a dramatic drop in state revenues because of the suffering economy. It's unclear how much longer the pandemic-induced drop in revenues will continue, forcing the state to dip into a limited pool of savings and shave off expenses. So far, the state has been able to balance its budget without severely hurting its public services and employees.

A small crowd of a few dozen protesters stood outside the Carvel State Office building in Wilmington before Carney discussed the new restrictions there during his weekly coronavirus press briefing.

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The weather was cold and windy, but the protesters appeared to be in good spirits. Many did not wear masks. Some carried signs that said "Reopen Delaware!" and "All jobs are essential!"

Public health experts from outside the state indicated that limiting or shutting down indoor dining would be one of the most effective ways to slow down the virus.

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health gives an update on the state's coronavirus response in Wilmington on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 at the Carvel State Building.

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State health officials have also recently warned against private gatherings, which they say are driving the spread of the virus. They warn that people should only gather with the people they live with during Thanksgiving and that outside visitors should wear a mask at all times and stay six feet away.

College students are asked to quarantine two weeks before they go home, get tested and wear a mask when they're around others.

Governor John Carney speaks during his weekly press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Delaware Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

Officials are increasingly wary about what will happen if residents gather with family and friends around Thanksgiving, after seeing a spike in cases after Halloween.

"A lot of this transmission is happening in frankly social environments, parties, dinners, having the guys over to watch the football game inside," Carney said.

When asked about how his administration plans to enforce the new at-home, indoor gathering limit, Carney said the state relies largely on voluntary compliance.

"We’re not going to be knocking on people’s doors to see how many are at dinner for Thanksgiving," he said.

Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @holveck_brandon. Contact Sarah Gamard at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.