UPDATE: State outlines new social gathering guidelines

WILMINGTON — As Delaware experiences a surge of COVID-19 positive cases and hospitalizations, the state announced additional restrictions Tuesday in attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

The new guidelines lowered the capacity for indoor dining at restaurants from 60% to 30%. All other indoor gatherings outside of homes must also be limited to 30% of the venue’s stated fire capacity, up to a cap of 50 people. This includes all events, such as weddings, funerals, services in houses of worship, performances, political gatherings, and events in public spaces including fire halls, according to the state.

Private indoor gatherings in homes must now be capped at no more than 10 people. Outdoor public gatherings are limited to 50 people. Up to 250 may be allowed with a plan approved by the Delaware Division of Public Health.

The order, via Gov. John Carney, will go into effect at 8 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 23.

“The actions that we’re taking today are ones that I’d rather we not have to take,” Gov. Carney said at the state’s weekly COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday. “I know this is difficult 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 for the health and economic welfare of our state.”

The new restrictions and guidance comes when Delaware is reporting its highest seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases per day at 347.3. There were 344 new cases of the virus announced Tuesday, reflecting data as of Monday at 6 p.m.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are up to 153 — the highest mark since June 2. Of those currently hospitalized with the virus, 32 are considered critical.

The DPH reported three new COVID-19 related deaths Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 739. Two of the three most recent deaths were Sussex County residents while the other was from New Castle County. They ranged in age from 71-years-old to 87-years-old and all three had underlying health conditions, according to the DPH.

Delaware’s seven-day rolling average for percentage of positive tests is at 5.5%, above the World Health Organization’s recommended mark of 5%. That statistics is the highest it has been since June 10.

“The conditions on the ground are getting worse,” Gov. Carney said. “We need to take action targeted toward the venues where spread is occurring.”

Restaurants are still allowed to have outdoor seating. The new restrictions now require face coverings to be worn inside when not eating or drinking and whenever staff approach the table.

National Federation of Independent Business Delaware State Director Mike O’Halloran said in a statement the actions taken by Gov. Carney will hurt industry who has felt the brunt of the financial toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those establishments that cannot seat customers outside or don’t have the financial means to set up outdoor seating will be in an even tougher financial spot because of today’s order,” Mr. O’Halloran said. “When so many small businesses are barely staying afloat and many are already coping with strict capacity limits, another reduction in revenues could result in permanent closures. The entire hospitality industry will be affected by today’s order. Not just restaurants and bars but our caterers, event planners, and all the small businesses that depend on public events will see their work impacted. This step backward could do irreparable damage to an industry already on the brink.”

Delaware Restaurant Association CEO Carrie Leishman also released a statement on Tuesday, saying “these unfair restrictions targeted directly at restaurants will almost certainly devastate our industry and force many small businesses to close their doors for good.”

“Restaurants have become the convenient and easy scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns,” Ms. Leishman said. “While COVID-19 documented spread is accelerating from private indoor gatherings and house parties.”

DPH Director Dr. Karyl Rattay said the state “would not make this recommendation if it were not important in decreasing the spread.” Dr. Rattay added the DPH’s contact tracers showed 28% of positive COVID-19 cases in October reported attendance at either restaurants, sports, house parties, religious services and other large gatherings. This was up from 18% in August.

According to Dr. Rattay, contact tracers found 10 outbreaks of COVID-19 related to religious services, some ended up with 30 individuals infected. Four weddings and one funeral also were sources for various COVID-19 outbreaks, as were large and small private parties within restaurants.

“The reality is 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,” Dr. Rattay said. “There is an abundant amount of science now that is supporting restaurants not being safe and restaurants being places where spread is taking place.”

“It’s not the fault of the restaurants,” Dr. Rattay added. “The restaurants are doing a lot of hard work around hygiene and keeping things clean. But the reality is, it is spread from respiratory droplets and it’s hard to control that.”

Gov. Carney on Tuesday also announced an expansion of the DE Relief Grants program for businesses hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions.

The expansion will provide up to $25 million in additional relief for hundreds of businesses that have been disproportionately impacted. Qualifying businesses, including restaurants and taprooms, will receive double their original grant allocation. The application deadline is Dec. 4 and can be found at delbiz.com/relief.

The final part of Gov. Carney’s order will prohibit Delaware youth sports organizations, teams and venues from hosting or participating in tournaments with out-of-state teams, effective at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 1. The order includes a provision prohibiting Delaware teams from traveling across states lines for tournaments.

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

It is also urging families to not hold Thanksgiving dinners with members of other households, citing some Halloween parties which the DPH’s contact tracing team determined led to significant community spread of the virus.

“I’m really astonished by how many Halloween parties that took place in our state,” Dr. Rattay said. “I do think that is part of what really drove some of the acceleration that we’re now seeing. So now we’re pretty fearful of what might happen with Thanksgiving parties.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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