Just in time for Thanksgiving, Gov. John Carney announced a new round of state restrictions Nov. 17, this time targeting youth sports tournaments along with social gatherings and restaurants.
The restrictions go into affect at 8 a.m., Monday, Nov. 23, limiting indoor home gatherings to no more than 10 people.
But in a press conference Nov. 17, Carney admitted that compliance with limits on individual homes will be voluntary.
“We're not going to be knocking on people's doors to see how many people are there for Thanksgiving,” he said.
He asked residents to keep their Thanksgiving plans small and local, even though the traditional holiday is usually one bursting with friends and family sharing a meal.
“I know this is difficult,” he said. “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 for the health and economic welfare of our state.”
In the past seven days, the average number of new COVID-19 positive cases hit 326 – about 100 cases higher than the April peak. The number of hospitalizations was 153, a figure not seen since early June, and the number of people in critical care reached 32, similar to May counts.
Halloween was a wake-up call for some health officials. Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, said she was surprised by the many Halloween parties held this year despite recommendations to forgo the celebration. She said the state's contact tracing program routinely leads to weddings, funerals and other social gatherings where COVID-19 spread originates.
“Drinking beer and wine and eating pizza together is not safe,” she said.
Youth sports changes
The biggest change this time around, however, will affect youth sports, particularly the travel teams that play in tournaments outside the state and venues that host tournaments that bring in out-of-state teams. Up to now, travel sports teams have been permitted to operate under general guidelines of social distancing, wearing face coverings, and rules for outdoor functions.
“We've seen really bad situations and transmission with sports tournaments,” Carney said.
Throughout the summer, youth sports teams were allowed to play, with packed tournaments just about weekly at Georgetown baseball facility Sports at the Beach, and similar crowds at DE Turf, a lacrosse, soccer and field hockey venue. The 76ers field house in Wilmington hosted football camps for hundreds of players. The pay-to-play culture was questioned by many members of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association during discussions about fall athletics.
Carney said he recently heard from a private-school nurse in Maryland who told him she has a lot of students quarantining after playing in a youth sports tournament. She then told him that tournaments were planning to move to Delaware since they faced restrictions in other states.
While Maryland has not yet prohibited youth sports tournaments, two counties have made decisions about youth sports – Anne Arundel County cut short public school athletics Nov. 12, and Harford County has suspended outdoor tournaments. On Nov. 16, New Jersey prohibited all interstate games and tournaments for indoor youth sports, with restrictions on outdoor competitions and tournaments.
Delaware's youth sports restrictions start Tuesday, Dec. 1.
“We're restricting and limiting out-of-state sports tournaments,” Carney said, adding in-state teams will still be allowed to play one another.
After a brief reprieve following Labor Day that allowed bars to serve drinks without food orders or reservations, the new restrictions have cut in half the already reduced number of customers a restaurant or bar can serve. Eateries had been held to 60 percent capacity throughout the summer, but will now be limited to 30 percent of an establishment's fire code capacity. Outdoor seating will still be allowed, although colder temperatures may not be appealing for an outside dining experience.
“I'm recognizing that we're moving into the colder months, and that has some implications for how many people would be willing to dine outdoors,” Carney said.
The dining experience itself will change under the new guidelines. Instead of being able to remove face coverings once seated with a group, everyone will be expected to keep their face coverings on unless eating or drinking.
Face coverings will also be required when working out at gyms, even when using aerobic equipment such as treadmills. “I know it can be done, and it can be done safely,” Carney said.
The Delaware Restaurant Association took issue with restrictions on restaurants, particularly when malls and retail stores are still permitted to operate with 60 percent occupancy.
“Delaware restaurants have led by example throughout the pandemic crisis, taking extraordinary steps to protect the health and safety of customers and employees,” said Carrie Leishman, DRA chief executive officer and president. “Restaurants across this state have risen to the challenges thrust upon them in 2020, providing a place for people to safely dine, and quite frankly, feel human again. We aggressively advocate that restaurants will continue to offer this experience in a safer environment than other unregulated indoor places.”
Leishman said restaurants should not be penalized with tighter restrictions, and she questioned data used to back the latest restrictions that was based on responses from 23 percent of interviewed cases.
“Questions about restaurant visits did not differentiate between outdoor, indoor or even drive-through or carryout visits,” she said. “In our opinion, this data lacks merit.”
Moving forward, the restaurant association asked Carney to use more solid data when limiting restaurant operations, and to treat restaurants no different from retail establishments. “Restricting indoor dining and not monitoring holiday shopping crowds is both dangerous and unfair,” Leishman said.
Already, she said, Delaware's $2.5 billion restaurant industry has been decimated by the economic shutdown, and further shutdowns will be catastrophic. Restaurants have lost almost $900 million since March shutdowns began, and shed thousands of hospitality workers – many of whom are women and minorities. In April, she said, Delaware restaurants lost more employment than almost all other states nationwide.
“Make no mistake – these unfair restrictions targeted directly at restaurants will almost certainly devastate our industry and force many small businesses to close their doors for good,” Leishman said. “The collateral damage will be laying hundreds and thousands of restaurant workers off right before the holidays with no safety net or security of enhanced federal unemployment. These vulnerable citizens have nowhere to turn.”