When Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday that “we will be extending our (coronavirus) mitigation efforts across the entire commonwealth,” he also urged all “non-essential” businesses across the state to close.
“We continue to report new cases of coronavirus every day, and additional steps must be taken to stop the spread,” said Dennis Davin, state Department of Community and Economic Development secretary. “Therefore, we strongly urge non-essential businesses across Pennsylvania to do their part by temporarily closing to help mitigate the spread of this contagious virus.”
The extension of that advisory from five counties to all 67 Pennsylvania counties, including Indiana, came as no surprise to Indiana County Chamber of Commerce President Mark Hilliard.
“I think we all saw this as a real good possibility that it was going to happen,” Hilliard said. “It is not what you want to have here, but in the interest of safety, it is probably the right decision.”
The governor’s office clarified the advisory Monday night, saying it was a request that protects employees, customers, and suppliers, and that it limits the spread of the virus through personal contact and surfaces.
The Wolf Administration also said it was relying on businesses to act now before the governor or the secretary of health finds it necessary to compel closures under the law for the interest of public health, including section 7301 of the state’s Emergency Management Services Code.
Hilliard said county officials are discussing the governor’s action.
“We are going to do whatever we can to get our communities through it,” he said. “It will not be easy and it is not a good situation.”
That “non-essential” list includes community and recreation centers; gyms, including yoga, barre and spin facilities; hair salons, nail salons and spas; casinos; concert venues; theaters; bars; sporting event venues and golf courses; retail facilities, including shopping malls and except for pharmacy or other health care facilities within retail operations.
Wolf said businesses that offer carry-out, delivery, and drive-through food and beverage service may continue to do so, but eating and drinking inside restaurants and bars is temporarily prohibited.
Late Monday, the House Republican majority issued a statement agreeing “this is a time to limit exposure to large groups of people,” but saying business owners have a right to remain in business.
GOP leaders said the governor’s mandate of an end to dine-in service was “an enforceable action, as restaurants and bars fall under the purview of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and the Department of Health.”
State Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana. acknowledged that “in order to stop this coronavirus from spreading, some serious measures have to be taken.” He urged businesses and constituents to follow the advice of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I want to make sure people stay positive,” Struzzi said. “We’re working to make sure everyone’s needs will be met, to make sure all of our emergency responders and everyone has what is needed, so our communities back home are being taken care of.”
But the Indiana legislator and other Republican lawmakers said “hundreds of business owners in Pennsylvania … feel blind-sided by (Monday’s) ‘statewide’ shutdown announcement and confused by what it actually means.”
In any case, Hilliard said, “I’m sure it is going to be a major hit to businesses in the area. We certainly expect a significant impact.”
How significant? “We won’t know until it is finished,” the chamber president said.
“If people can’t patronize our local businesses, that is going to be hard for our economy,” said Struzzi, Hilliard’s predecessor as chamber president. “That is the challenging time we are in.”
Adding to the problem facing local businesses is the COVID-19-related suspension of classes at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. IUP will suspend all face-to-face classroom instruction for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester and transition to offering all instruction online.
Some online courses began Monday, others should start next week.
Meanwhile, students living in the residence halls are asked to remove their belongings and check out of those halls by Saturday.
“Without the students being in town, I have some real concern for the effect on our economy,” Struzzi said.
“Those students help put money back into the local economy,” Hilliard said.
Some students also were employees of local businesses.
“Granted, given the governor’s announcement, many of those places may not be open,” Hilliard said. “You’re still losing cooks and people to work those jobs.”
The chamber said earlier Monday that the U.S. Small Business Administration is offering designated states and territories low-interest federal disaster loans for working capital to small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of COVID-19.
He said businesses should fill out the application found at https://files.constantcontact.com/7a46d2709e/e9ee3eeb-a83d-4bee-8be3-902cd6eda430.pdf.
He acknowledged that member businesses “may not know the answers yet (about) how much have they lost,” but urged them to fill it out and send it in “after a couple weeks when they get some firm numbers.”
Also Monday, state Secretary of Labor & Industry Jerry Oleksiak said workers impacted by COVID-19 may be eligible for unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits. Hilliard said affected workers should apply for it.
“I believe there are a few restrictions, but it should be available to most employees who are being displaced,” he said. “We’re tough and our workforce is tough and we will get through it and we will get through it together.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.