The state’s top health official tied the fall reopening of schools to Pennsylvanians’ willingness to wear masks, sanitize hands and keep away from others as much as possible to curb COVID-19’s further spread.

“It’s critical to drive down the case counts now, in terms of the rise of new cases, in order to prepare for schools to reopen. If we don’t do that now, that would put that (reopening) in jeopardy,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said Thursday during a news conference with Harrisburg reporters also shown online.

Citing rising coronavirus case numbers in every region, Levine defended her and Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to limit bar and restaurant patronage and the size of gatherings again.

“Our strategies have been and will continue to be evidence-based and continue to evolve,” Levine said.

Under Wolf’s order, bar/restaurants must reduce indoor seating capacity to 25% from 50%. They may only serve alcohol to indoor patrons who buy food, but can continue outdoor dining. Bars serving only alcohol may not operate. Takeout food and alcohol sales remain allowed. Gatherings of more than 25 indoors and more than 250 outdoors are forbidden. Wolf blamed young people congregating at bars and restaurants without masks for forcing him to renew restrictions.

A reporter asked Levine why the state refuses to release contact tracing data proving bars’ and restaurants’ culpability.

Levine said the state doesn’t have complete data that shows a specific bar or restaurant produced an outbreak. In some instances, the state can trace an outbreak to a specific bar or restaurant; in others, it can’t, she said. But the virus’s spread to younger people across the country buttresses evidence of the source.

“Of course, people don’t always go to one place,” Levine said. “So I don’t have tables that can tell you that this bar has had this many patients. But we have data from our contact tracing, Allegheny County has a lot of data from their contact tracing, about restaurants, bars, nightclubs, etc., which is why we took that action.”

The federal government recommends the same limits for the same reasons, she said.

Levine said she would consider releasing categorical data that shows the numbers of cases produced by visitors to bars, restaurants and other places rather than establishment-specific data.

“I’ll be pleased to look at it,” she said.

She chastised bars that aim to skirt the food requirement by offering snacks. On Wednesday, the Wolf administration reminded liquor licensees that state law defines meals as “food prepared on the premises, sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner” and specifically says snacks aren’t meals.

“By trying to skirt the rules, you’re not protecting the public health, you’re not protecting your family and loved ones, and you’re not helping us get schools open in the fall,” Levine said.

She said the state will make an exception to the 25-person limit on indoor gatherings for schools if the criteria at the time allow that.

“Our goal right now is that schools will open in person,” Levine said. “Many school districts have talked about a matrix, in terms of some classes being online, some classes being in person. I’m sure that we’ll have to be looking at this county by county, not just across the whole state. ... That’s why the mitigation efforts that we talked about are so important.”

For the fifth time in the last two weeks, seven Northeast Pennsylvania counties recorded no new COVID-19-related deaths in its daily count, according to state Department of Health statistics.

The counties — Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming — recorded only 25 new cases, which may mean a 55-case spike reported last Tuesday was nothing more than a lag in weekend reporting or the delayed return of lab results.

State officials say seven- or 14-day numbers determine a trend. The 25 new cases are more in line with the region’s two-week trend, which shows an average of 23 new cases a day.

In all, the region has produced more than 7,000 cases and nearly 600 deaths.

Statewide, the Health Department has reported more than 113,000 cases, , and 7,174 deaths.

Three-quarters of coronavirus patients have recovered, according to state statistics, a figure that has remained steady for weeks. Recovery means a virus survivor who tested positive lived more than 30 days since the test.

Wyoming added three cases for 58 total, four probable, and yesterday its deaths jumped by one, the first since May 21.

Contact the writer:; 570-348-9147; @BorysBlogTT on Twitter.

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