Delaware has ordered some beach bars to close Friday heading into the Fourth of July weekend, and Gov. John Carney said the state will stay indefinitely in Phase 2 of the economy reopening plan to keep the number of coronavirus cases from rocketing up.
Carney said he’s taking the dramatic action because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases related to beach activities and because too many people are heading out in public without wearing face masks and are not observing social distance guidelines, particularly at the beach.
“We just don’t want this to get out of control,” he said.
Carney and Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay showed a slide that depicted a sharp rise in cases in the zip code 19971, which is Rehoboth and Dewey beaches.
Not only has there been an uptick in the number of new cases, particularly in Eastern Sussex County, but the average age has shifted from those in the 40s and 50s to more cases in those 18- to 25-year-olds, Carney and Rattay said.
“We’ve clearly had an outbreak in bars, restaurants and social activities in Delaware beaches,” Carney said.
Rattay said testing in Rehoboth Beach Thursday of more than 1,000 people showed 102 positive cases, for a rate of 9.5 percent. The average age of that testing was 29, with people between the age of 17 and 22. Most of the younger people who test positive have no or mild symptoms, he said.
A Friday testing in Dewey tested 93 with 12 positive for a rate of 14.8 percent of positive cases, Rattay said.
The governor said Delaware health officials have been watching other states — Texas, Georgia, Florida and California among them — cope with soaring cases numbers. Nobody wants that here, he said, which is why the state will stay in Phase 2. Some of those other states also are closing bars in popular areas.
Staying in phase 2 allows restaurants and other retail stores to serve some clients, but not fill their tables or stores.
“Now it’s time for us to do what we have to do,” Carney said. “I’m confident Delawareans will seize the day and seize the moment and put out that little fire … If we don’t, if we get complacent, if we listen to the naysayers, then we’re going to end up like some of the other states. And I don’t want to be in that place.”
Carney had announced last week that the rising number of cases meant he was going to delay moving to Phase 3, which would have allowed businesses to have more clients and further opened the economy.
A protest about not reopening the economy is set for Tuesday night at Dover Mall to coincide with the close of the General Assembly. Asked about it, Carney pointed to a 90-day chart showing the rise and fall in the number of coronavirus cases in Delaware. Other states didn’t have a dip, he noted.
Delaware needs to limit business, people need to limit their trips into public and residents need to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines in order to have the state open fully, he said.
Rattay noted that the state is dealing with a pandemic, something that hasn’t happened in our lifetimes and the state wants to protect residents.
Carney also said during the Tuesday press conference that he agreed with Molly Magarik, incoming secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services, when she said last week that the state had the tools to avoid having to go into a full shutdown again.
“We have a good team,” he said.
Over the weekend, the state had issued a press release asking for people who lived, worked or played in the Rehoboth and Dewey beach areas to get tested this week. On Monday more than 1,300 people were tested in Rehoboth and Dewey, Rattay said. More testing sites will open this week and can be found at https://coronavirus.delaware.gov/testing/
Also on Monday, Rehoboth Beach Police Department announced that three lifeguards have tested positive for coronavirus.
The state began sounding an alarm about coronavirus at the beach two weeks ago when it discovered that three teens tested positive after going to Senior Week in Dewey and attending several functions in Rehoboth. Then last Thursday 100 people tested positive in Rehoboth and on Friday, a dozen tested positive in Dewey.
Also at the end of last week, the Starboard and Starboard Raw in Dewey, announced they were closing to test their employees and because of crowds who were not following mask and social distancing recommendations. Several other Sussex County restaurants said they were closing for safety reasons.
Carney and Rattay praised The Starboard, the Purple Parrot, the Paradise Grill and Woody’s for recognizing the problems, closing early to avoid big crowds or closing for a few days to test employees.
The rise in cases came as the state began to relax its lockdown, restaurants and other businesses reopened and summer weather officially arrived. That enticed people outside, particularly because they had been in lockdown since March when Carney issued an emergency order closing down the state and asking people to stay home to slow the spread of the virus.
On Monday, the state said it added another 150 positive cases to Delaware’s total. It listed 11,474 people as testing positive, with 507 deaths.
Rattay said in Sunday’s press release that the state was worried about its own observations that people were not wearing masks or socially distancing themselves at the beaches, and about photos that showed the same thing.
Last week, DPH announced a partnership with the Division of Small Business in which DPH’s Health Systems Protection section will begin enforcing violations of the state’s reopening requirements in Delaware businesses.
The protection section will have a broad array of enforcement actions available to it, including business closures as warranted, she said in the press release and on Tuesday, she elaborated.
Enforcement will start with information and education, she said. It could escalate to inspections, follow-up inspections, fines of $1,000 per violation in a report, closure and referring the cases to law enforcement, she said.