A state liquor store front in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison).
To say that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board did not exactly distinguish itself during the pandemic is kind of like describing Napoleon’s invasion of Russia as an instance of bad vacation planning. From an online ordering system that blocked access more often that it allowed it to a curbside delivery system that was fraught with issues, the flaws of the state-run monopoly were painfully visible.
And on Wednesday, a state Senate panel heard testimony from restaurant owners and those in the wine trade who offered their own horror stories of dealing with the PLCB as they struggled to keep their businesses afloat.
They included rules on purchasing that can only be described as Byzantine, and an initially restricted selection of wines that left white tablecloth restaurants, used to offering high end grape, with access to the same vino that you can get in your local Giant or Wegmans.
Discussion Wednesday also centered on the fact that liquor stores closed while independently run distilleries, beer distributors and microbreweries continued to operate during the pandemic. Liquor stores also stayed open during lockdown in other states.
“Nothing the LCB is doing is helping the restaurant industry survive,” one frustrated witness told the Senate Law & Justice Committee in an appropriately glitchy Zoom hearing.
Which is why the looming reopening of more than 70 state-run liquor stores in northwestern and north-central Pennsylvania on Friday is so high stakes for the agency. They absolutely can’t afford to screw it up.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, the PLCB set down its guidance for the stores that will be opening in the “Yellow Zone” counties on Friday:
- “Stores will limit the number of customers in a store at any time, allowing no more than 25 people (employees and customers) in any location and further restricting numbers of customers in smaller stores.
- “The first hour each store is open each day will be reserved for customers at high risk for COVID-19, including those 65 years of age and older. Voluntary compliance from all customers is encouraged in the interest of protecting the health and safety of our most vulnerable community members.
- “Customers and employees will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing, guided by signage throughout the stores.
- “Signage will also direct customers to follow one-way patterns to avoid cross-traffic and encourage them to refrain from touching products unless they intend to buy them.
- “Store employees will perform enhanced and frequent cleaning and disinfecting, and store hours will be modified to ensure appropriate time for cleaning and restocking.
- “All sales are final, and no returns will be accepted until further notice.”
Speaking to the Senate panel on Wednesday, PLCB Chairman Tim Holden acknowledged the hardship that closing the stores created, but he defended the decision, pointing to the same health concerns raised in the guidance above.
“We had to protect our employees, and our customers,” he told lawmakers.
In fairness to the PLCB, the demands placed on it by the pandemic would strain any government agency. And as we’ve seen throughout the last eight weeks, from Zoom public hearings to shifting rationales for shutdowns, state government has had to reimagine itself on the fly — with wildly varying degrees of effectiveness.
But even before the pandemic, the PLCB was already into the Scrappy Doo phase of its existence, frantically clinging to relevance, even as the world around it shifts dramatically. The fact that it was a major revenue raiser for the state has always been its saving grace. But as lawmakers noted Wednesday, its bottom line was devastated by the pandemic.
And at least in the House, the board’s recent misadventures have prompted renewed calls to privatize a system whose architects wanted to make the purchase of alcohol as difficult and expensive as possible.
The board has spent decades chipping away at that reputation, but has never fully shed it. If you’ve ever tried to explain our system to an out-of-town cousin, or brought more than your allotted 196 ounces of booze to the counter at Giant, then you know exactly what we’re talking about here.
Still “the current crisis has highlighted the current failure of the LCB system,” Rep. Timothy O’Neal, R-Washington, the new privatization’s bill sponsor, told FOX-43 in York, Pa., recently.
“The situation we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 crisis has really highlighted this issue with customer convenience when we talk about liquor sales,” O’Neal told the station. “I really think it’s about time we move to this next step with this liquor system and move the state government out of liquor sales.”
If there’s one ray of sunshine for the PLCB here in this simmering debate, it’s that, while he’s willing to countenance modernization, Gov. Tom Wolf hasn’t been shy about wielding his veto pen when privatization bills that have landed on his desk in the past.
But the pressure is still on the PLCB for a smooth roll out on Friday. Lawmakers will be watching.
Gov. Tom Wolf channeled his inner New Deal Democrat on Wednesday, proposing the creation of an army of public health workers he’s dubbed the Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps, who’d be charged with helping out on the monumental task of contact tracing that’s critical to the state safely reopening. Our Pittsburgh Correspondent, Kim Lyons, has what you need to know.
Erie County will be among the two-dozen northwestern and north-central Pennsylvania counties that will move into the “Yellow Zone” on Friday, as businesses reopen and employees are sent back to work with restrictions. Erie Correspondent Hannah McDonald has the details.
Joining the company of other states, Gov. Tom Wolf has signed an executive order shielding healthcare professionals from malpractice claims for the duration of the pandemic, Stephen Caruso reports.
On our Commentary Page, it’s a double-hit of Gov. Tom Wolf, who outlines the progress the state has made in fighting the pandemic both in English and en Español. Pittsburgh Current columnist Larry Schweiger has some thoughts on modern union busting and how it’s contributed to the decline of the middle class.
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to lift the Wolf administration’s business shutdown order, Bloomberg News reports.
The Inquirer looks at the forces behind the reopen rally planned for Friday at Philadelphia City Hall.
Pittsburgh City Paper has photos of a procession of healthcare workers for National Nurses Day.
The families of people who lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic are feeling left behind the during pandemic, PennLive reports.
Cars lined up at the Lehigh Valley’s first drive-thru coronavirus testing site, the Morning Call reports.
Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:
The PA Post profiles healthcare workers caring for the disabled during the pandemic.
Stateline.org looks at the push by counties and states to get included in the next coronavirus relief bill.
A new Democratic super PAC is looking to assist Joe Biden with an October ad buy in Pennsylvania, PoliticsPA reports.
Some Trump supporters are saying we shouldn’t believe the COVID-19 death toll, which is just insane. Politico has the story.What Goes On.
Time TBD: Daily COVID-19 briefing.
You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to longtime Friend O’the Blog, Kirsten Page Giorgione, of Harrisburg, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day.
Here’s one from the late, great Grant McLennan, of legendary Aussie pop-rockers, The Go-Betweens, who left us 14 years ago on Wednesday. It’s the lovely and poignant solo track “Black Mule.”
Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
NHL.com profiles the best right wings of the expansion era. Some of the names have a legendary ring to them.
And now you’re up to date.
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