ALLENTOWN (TNS) — There’s nothing like being home for the holidays, right?
I hope you embrace the idea, because I suspect that’s where we all are going to be as coronavirus cases surge in Pennsylvania.
With cases spiraling well beyond levels we saw in the spring, and hospitalizations rising, state officials have held off on shutting down the economy again. Give them credit for that.
They’re trying to balance the need for public safety with the need for people to work, attend school and have some fun.
Rather than enact onerous new statewide restrictions, officials are trying to get people to comply with existing rules such as wearing masks, social distancing and limiting capacity at restaurants, businesses and entertainment venues.
Tuesday, state officials expanded some of those orders and instituted new rules designed to deter interstate travel. But they didn’t restrict what most people can do.
You can still eat in a restaurant, go to the gym, get your hair cut, watch your child play sports, see a movie and browse at the mall (unless you live in Philadelphia, which has banned some of those activities).
But for how long? I don’t think much longer.
The new rules, like the existing ones, have little likelihood of being enforced. So I seriously doubt they’ll make much difference.
Many people will follow them because they care about their community and want to do the right thing. But too many people won’t.
If cases continue to rise — Pennsylvania is projected to run out of intensive-care hospital beds next month — the state will have no choice. Other states already are clamping down.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Tuesday the state will continue with a self-policing policy and count on businesses and individuals to do the right thing.
“We really expect and anticipate that the public will come together and we will stand united to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the significant increases we are seeing,” Levine said.
I wish it were that easy.
She shot down the notion that the new orders were just rhetoric, and mentioned that local officials and police have the authority to step in. But few counties have health departments to enforce the rules. And law enforcement has shown little interest, with some district attorneys saying they would not pursue violators.
History proves that self-policing isn’t effective. The state’s mask order has been in place since April and some people still refuse to follow it. And some businesses are hesitant to push back because they don’t want to start a confrontation. A clerk at a Bethlehem Township cigar store was shot at, and an employee at Sesame Place was punched in the face.
Granted, the orders would be tough to enforce if the state tried. Checking everyone entering the state to see if they have a negative coronavirus test, as will be required as of Friday, is unrealistic. So is checking every business to make sure they aren’t over capacity and are requiring staff and customers to wear masks, and checking homes to make sure people are wearing masks if they have visitors, as now is also required.
That would be an invasion of privacy if they tried.
The restaurant industry, unfortunately, has borne the brunt of the limited enforcement because it is so heavily regulated. Health inspectors and liquor control enforcement officers were there regularly even before the pandemic.
All we can do is hope that others voluntarily follow the rules. Many are. It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone working at a store without a mask. Most customers are wearing them, too, and trying to stay a safe distance from others.
But “most” isn’t good enough.
All of the good work done by individuals and businesses that are complying with the orders can be undone by just a few rebels who don’t care, get sick and spread their germs everywhere they go.
The high school I graduated from in the Pittsburgh area had to tell 150 students to stay home Tuesday after they attended a parent-sponsored homecoming dance where one of the guests was infected. Decisions like that doom us all to another lockdown.
Some people just aren’t going to obey any rules, regardless of how simple they are, such as wearing a mask. I heard from several of them Tuesday after writing a column suggesting that we all have responsibilities to stop the spread of the virus.
One fellow suggested I read the U.S. Constitution after I urged everyone to heed the state’s mask and other safety orders.
“They are unconstitutional and unenforceable,” he told me. “Do you really think someone can make you wear a mask? I do have the freedom not to wear a mask, and do not. Period.”
Dr. Levine addressed that argument Tuesday: “We all are blessed to have freedoms in our country. But with freedom comes responsibility.”
If we don’t take responsibility, we will lose more of our freedoms. As I wrote Tuesday, a shutdown doesn’t have to be necessary. I don’t believe that’s the answer to fighting the virus, and I believe we can prevent it. I don’t think we’re strong enough, though.
I hope I’m wrong. But in the meantime, I’ll be stocking up on toilet paper and other essentials. That way I’ll be comfortable celebrating the holidays at home, just in case.
(Paul Muschick is a columnist for The Morning Call of Allentown.)