HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Fans will soon return to pro sports venues whose stands have been empty for a year or more as Pennsylvania on Monday eased restrictions on large gatherings to reflect a sustained slide in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The state also is lifting restrictions on out-of-state travel and considering a plan to vaccinate teachers.
Monday's developments came as Pennsylvania prepared to receive its initial allotment of doses of the newly approved, one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Under the relaxed gathering limits announced by Gov. Tom Wolf, outdoor venues are now allowed to host events up to 20% of their maximum capacity, while indoor occupancy will be 15% of maximum capacity, regardless of venue size.
“We need to balance protecting public health with leading the state to a robust economic recovery,” Wolf said in a news release. “We are lifting mitigation efforts only when we believe it is safe to do so.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins said it would allow 2,800 fans into PPG Paints Arena for Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers. It will be the Pens' first home game with fans since a victory over Montreal on March 8, 2020.
Pittsburgh Pirates President Travis Williams said opening day at PNC Park “will be much more than a game. It will mark a significant step in overcoming this pandemic.”
In Philadelphia, the Wells Fargo Center said it would quickly allow fans into Flyers and 76ers games if city officials give the go-ahead.
“We’re ready to safely welcome fans back to Broad Street, and as soon as the city further eases its restrictions, we will have Flyers and 76ers fans in the building within days,” said Valerie Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and Wells Fargo Center.
James Garrow, spokesperson for the city health department, said Monday that officials are studying what needs to be done to “bring Philadelphia into alignment with the state.”
The governing body for Pennsylvania interscholastic sports, meanwhile, said the relaxed statewide limits could pave the way for fans at winter sports playoff contests. The board of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association said it would discuss the matter at its meeting on Wednesday.
For both indoor and outdoor events, venues must require masks and follow physical distancing guidelines, state officials said. Venues will be permitted to seat spectators in groups of up to 10, or more than 10 if everyone lives in the same household. Seating pods must be separated by at least 6 feet.
Separately, the state is doing away with a requirement that people who are coming into Pennsylvania from out of state test negative prior to their arrival. Under the old order, people who did not get tested were supposed to quarantine for 14 days.
State officials said they took into account the expanding percentage of residents who have been vaccinated, as well as the COVID-19 test positivity rate, the rate of new infections and hospital capacity, in deciding to ease restrictions.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Monday:
VACCINE FOR TEACHERS
State officials are considering a plan to move teachers up in the vaccine line in a bid to get schools reopened more quickly.
Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, who sits on the state's coronavirus task force, told The Associated Press on Monday that Wolf and his acting health secretary, at Sunday's task force meeting, discussed making it possible for teachers to get vaccinated soon.
“I was under the impression that that was the way they were going," O'Neal said.
The state is still in Phase 1A of its vaccine plan, offering the shots to people age 65 and over and younger people with high-risk medical conditions — a population that numbers around 4 million.
Teachers currently are grouped in Phase 1B, along with grocery store workers, first responders, manufacturing employees and others considered to be essential workers.
Teachers unions, superintendents, school boards and other education groups have asked Wolf to prioritize school staff for the COVID-19 vaccine, calling it an “absolutely essential” step toward reopening schools and keeping them open.
The discussions about vaccinating teachers are happening as school districts face pressure to bring students back to classrooms for in-person instruction, and as the Wolf administration develops a plan to roll out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine just authorized by federal regulators.
Although Democrats have typically defended the Wolf administration’s handling of the pandemic, four Democratic members of Congress on Monday released a letter to Wolf, urging him to speed up the process for vaccinating teachers and to improve the overall rollout.
U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan, Mary Gay Scanlon and Susan Wild asked Wolf to begin planning for Phase 1B vaccination now, and to give teachers and others in the category more certainty about how and when they can get a shot.
“Getting our children safely back into the classroom would have myriad benefits — not only alleviating many pressures on working families and allowing people to return to work but also beginning to reverse the toll that the pandemic has taken on students’ educational outcomes and mental health,” they wrote.
In addition, the lawmakers asked him to explore best practices from other states that might speed up the deployment of vaccines.
BACK TO CLASS
Philadelphia grade-school students are heading back to the classroom for the first time in nearly a year, the district announced Monday.
Students in pre-kindergarten through second grades will be welcomed back to class at 53 schools on March 8. More schools could join them the following week, depending on whether they are determined to be safe for in-person instruction.
Monday's announcement came after the school district and the teachers union had been locked in mediation over the district's safety plan.
“This union has led the charge in ensuring that when school buildings reopen, they will be safe for occupancy. That’s exactly what the plan we outlined today does," said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press writer Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this story.