Lending a helping hand

Team Rubicon volunteers helped the Indiana County Community Action Program receive, sort, and pack approximately 500 to 600 food boxes for needy families. Strike team leader Michael Sieminski and volunteer Sarah Denver helped pack and sort food.

Indiana County and 12 other counties in southwestern Pennsylvania have been cleared to “reopen” some commerce from COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions, Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday.

The counties will move to the “yellow” phase of reopening at 12:01 a.m. on May 15. The region also includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

“I think the folks who will be most happy are the retail folks who can now open,” said Linda Mitchell, director of the downtown Indiana business promotion group. But others will miss restarting right away.

“I think that the folks that are probably not going to be happy because they’re not moving into the yellow are the more personal services — spas, salons, massage therapy, gyms. Those sorts of things,” Mitchell continued.

“For downtown, this will affect a lot of our businesses that will be able to allow their customers in, allow shopping to resume. Unfortunately the wait will be longer for our gyms, our nail salons. And those seem to be the ones that I hear people saying they don’t understand, along with dog groomers — another one that people have wanted to be open.”

Chief among the other loosened restrictions is the lifting of the stay-at-home order for the 13 counties.

But where people can go will remain limited. Restaurants and taverns must keep their dining rooms and bars closed, and may continue carry-out or delivery service.

The state is encouraging a shift to curbside shopping or delivery of goods by retailers as they reopen, and is requiring them to manage social distancing, comply with government sanitization standards and to shun customers who don’t wear face masks.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health said Friday that 200 more people with COVID-19 have died, raising the statewide death toll to 3,616. In Indiana County, there have been 75 confirmed cases and five deaths. More than 1,300 additional people have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. To date, the virus has been confirmed in more than 54,000 people in Pennsylvania.

At the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce, President Mark Hilliard said his office is seeking clarification from the state so he can help guide chamber member businesses to comply with what some see as ambiguous guidelines.

“The biggest question is in some of the language that says for retail business, in-person is allowed, but curbside and delivery service is preferable,” Hilliard said. “Now it does specify in certain guidelines that for in-person operations you have to follow safety orders: the CDC guidelines on social distancing, businesses have to follow guidelines for cleaning. The ‘Road to Recovery’ emails we’ve been sending out have had information on both of those things for awhile now. We’ve been trying to prepare businesses for what’s going to happen when they reopen.

“But when they tell you in-person retail is allowed but curbside and delivery service is preferable, that’s not definitively telling you one way or the other.”

Indoor recreation, health and wellness facilities and personal care services, along with theaters, casinos and other entertainment businesses will remain closed.

Child care facilities in yellow-phase counties will be permitted to conduct in-person operations while adhering to certain government guidelines.

Some businesses and social functions will see marginal changes.

“We will be allowed gatherings of as many as 25 people instead of 10 under the move to the yellow phase,” said Jennifer Rairigh, business manager of the Rairigh-Bence Funeral Home in Indiana.

Roman Catholic churches in Indiana and three other counties of the Greensburg Diocese will reopen their doors Friday for in-person prayer and worship, the first wave of restoring religious observations, Bishop Edward Malesic said. Parishioners will be required to wear masks and sit 6 feet from one another, except members of the same household. Parishes must follow cleaning guidelines.

It was unclear how the change would affect banks and certain professional services.

A feature of the current reopening of the state, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said, is a limited return of dentists to their practices. Levine listed a number of permitted procedures and described personal protective equipment that dentists and dental hygienists must wear.

The governor’s list of yellow phase changes and restrictions doesn’t address real estate, an industry that has been almost completely shuttered since mid-March.

Realtor Jennifer Gonda-English, of the Kuzneski & Lockard Agency in Indiana, said agents have been restricted since March 19 when real estate appeared on Wolf’s list of non-essential businesses. Agents have been prohibited from installing lockboxes, posting for sale signs and taking photos at listed properties.

Buyers, sellers and Realtors have been restricted to virtual home tours and dealing. Under revisions issued in April, Wolf permitted agents to work in person with buyers and sellers to close on contracts signed March 18 or earlier.

In their roles as property appraisers, Gonda-English said, she and other agents have only been allowed to inspect properties that are under contract but have been prohibited from working on other properties, including undeveloped land and vacant lots.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that has shut down most in-person real estate activity during the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.

Wolf and Levine on Thursday evening signed new orders — one for yellow phase reopening and one to extend until June 4 the stay-at-home order for the remaining red-phase counties. That extension, however, does not mean that other counties won’t move to yellow before June 4.

“The reopening plan prioritizes the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians by using a combination of factors to gauge how much movement a location can tolerate before the 2019 novel coronavirus becomes a threat,” Wolf said. “I’d like to emphasize that this plan is not a one-way route. We are closely monitoring the 24 counties in the yellow phase and will re-impose restrictions if danger arises.”

Wolf reminded residents and business owners that yellow means caution and that everyone needs to continue to be mindful of their actions and how they affect not only themselves, but their families, friends and community.

“Every contact between two people is a new link in the chain of potential transmission,” Wolf said. “And if the new case count begins to climb in one area, restrictions will need to be imposed to prevent local medical facilities from becoming overwhelmed. So, Pennsylvanians should continue to make good choices.”

Law enforcement remains focused on achieving voluntary compliance through education, but citations are possible for violators depending on the circumstances of an investigation.

In addition to the possible criminal penalties levied by law enforcement, there may be additional licensing consequences for violators, in part, through complaints filed by employees on the Department of Health portal that allows any employee who feels their employer is not providing a safe work environment to fill out an online form.

The Department of Health vets the complaints and investigates internally or sends the complaint to the appropriate state agency for investigation. For example, restaurant complaints are handled by the Department of Agriculture, which inspects those facilities; complaints about nursing homes are handled by the Department of Health, which inspects and licenses those facilities. Other involved agencies are the departments of State and Labor & Industry.

Concerns about a business reopening that may be in violation of stay-at-home or yellow phase orders should be made to local law enforcement non-emergency numbers or a local elected official.

Locally, business leaders are eager to see entrepreneurs return to operation in compliance with their best understanding of the state’s rules.

“The state has already sent guidelines about what each phase means and my understanding is that we are following along with those guidelines,” Hilliard said. “Now, have they reached out and specified exactly what they mean? No, we haven’t heard anything yet at our level. My guess is they intend for us to follow the same guidelines as the regions that were announced last Friday.

“They’re somewhat clear but I think there is still a lot of gray area, so we are just trying our best to guide businesses and tell them what we feel is the safest route for them to take,” Hilliard said.

“We all have to work together to make it successful,” Mitchell said. “We hope everyone is patient with each other. We are all navigating this together. It’s up to all of us to extend some kindness to others and be patient.”