COVID-19 outbreak in Pa.: What’s open and what’s closed

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This story will be updated with the latest COVID-related shutdowns. Last update: Monday, March 23 at 2:45 pm.

Update: Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday strengthened his orders for most Pennsylvania businesses to temporarily close their doors, using his executive power to threaten legal enforcement against those that refused to cease operations.

The broad designation applies to laundromats, performing arts venues, recreation centers, entertainment venues, and general merchandise stores, which all must shutter by 8 p.m. Thursday, Wolf announced in a late afternoon press release.

State agencies including the Pennsylvania State Police began enforcing the order at 8 am on March 23, and businesses that don’t comply could face fines, citations, license revocations, or criminal prosecution, Wolf said.

The order also affects many office workplaces, including accounting businesses, law firms, real estate offices and certain administrative support services, according to a list of business classifications that accompanied the release.

Original Story:

Gov. Tom Wolf began to fully exert his executive authority in the fight against COVID-19 on Monday, when he asked for thousands of businesses to shutter or reduce their operations to reduce the spread of the virus.

At the time, the state had identified 76 cases of the disease in 14 counties across the state.  By Thursday, when the total had risen to 185 cases in 22 counties, Wolf tightened the command, threatening enforcement against “non-life sustaining” businesses that didn’t close their doors by the next day.

Wolf has the power to make the request because of a disaster declaration he issued on March 6.

Here’s the latest on what’s open, and what’s not.

Schools

On March 13, Wolf ordered schools to close for two weeks. On March 23, the administration extended the order for another week, meaning they will not reopen until April 6 at earliest. Further extensions were possible, the administration added.

Schools will not be penalized if they miss the 180 days of instruction required under state law. School districts may also continue to offer free lunch for pickup throughout the shutdown.

Wolf orders Pa. public schools closed for two weeks in response to coronavirus

Courts

The state Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered all courts across Pennsylvania to close their doors for most business and halt evictions through at least April 3.

The order will allow judges to conduct “essential business,” including hearings for matters related to bail review, emergency child custody petitions, and protection from abuse petitions.

Liquor Stores

Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores closed their doors indefinitely on Tuesday. Licensed grocery stores are still selling wine and beer.

Bars and dine-in restaurants are take-out only

Wolf has asked for all restaurants and bars in Pennsylvania to close their dine-in services starting Monday, March 16. However, they can stay open to provide takeout or delivery.

His administration turned up the heat on that directive on Wednesday, when the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board ordered all licensed bars, restaurants, breweries and wineries and to stop serving drinks on-site or risk having their license yanked.

John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, told the Capital-Star that he’d heard from some business owners who chafed at Wolf’s directive. But, facing a public health crisis, “nothing we can say or do would change that.”

Longstreet added that he has urged member restaurants to take advantage of a spike in consumers’ demand for hot food on their doorstep by establishing delivery service, if they haven’t already.

Grocery stores, pharmacies and “essential businesses” remain open

In a statement, the Wolf administration clarified that other “essential businesses” that should remain open include, but are not limited to:

  • Grocery stores, convenience stores, hardware stores and other household good retailers
  • Pharmacies, hospitals, doctors’ officers, biomedical and other medical facilities
  • Trash collection
  • Laundromats
  • Post offices and shipping outlets
  • Public transportation
  • Gas stations
  • Auto repair
  • Insurance offices and banks
  • Veterinary clinics and pet stores 
  • Hotel and commercial lodging
  • Industrial manufacturing
  • Construction 
  • Food processing, agriculture and feed mills
  • Warehousing, storage, and distribution

However, the final decision always ends with the business owner.

Gyms, recreation centers, and other businesses closed

Non-essential businesses asked to close were public-facing industries such as entertainment, hospitality, and recreation facilities, including but not limited to:

  • Community and recreation centers, 
  • Gyms
  • Yoga, barre and spin studios
  • Hair salons, nail salons and barber shops
  • Spas
  • Casinos
  • Concert venues and theaters
  • Sporting event venues
  • Golf courses
  • Non-essential retail, such as shopping malls.

Pharmacies or other health care facilities based in retail operations should continue to stay open.

Wolf has continued to stress that his order is voluntary, and the final call belongs with the business owner. He would not, he said last week, send “the State Police of the National Guard out to do this.”

But confusion still reigns among some small business owners, according to the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Chapter president Gordon Denlinger said in a statement that he’s received questions from cleaning services, catering companies, tax services, and a military equipment manufacturer asking if they are essential or not.

“We need more clarity or a list explaining exactly what is an essential service before there is a need unmet during the virus outbreak or unnecessary financial harm to these small businesses and their employees,” Denlinger said in a statement.

The administration did throw down a gauntlet Monday night, saying in a statement that is “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.”

Public services

In a press release laying out coronavirus action, Wolf said Monday that public services still open will include “police, fire, emergency medical services, sanitation, and essential services for vulnerable populations.”

Other, non-essential state workers will work from home. The state is also authorizing two weeks paid absence for employees who don’t have telework capabilities.

At Monday’s press conference, Wolf said the admin was “working with all state workers to determine who’s essential, who’s non-essential.”

For example, he pointed to PennDOT employees who might not be essential now, but “if we have a snow storm, we will want people working to clear out the snow.”

In an email, an administration spokesperson added that agencies determine “which of their essential functions must continue during a disruption or office closure and the employees needed to continue the functions.”

“The designation of an employee as essential can also depend upon the circumstances for the closing and the emerging operational needs of the agency at any time.”

But according to Steve Catanese, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, thousands of state employees started Monday morning as non-essential, and by days’ end were essential. 

SEIU 668 represents 20,000 human service workers across the state, of which, Catanese estimated, more than 6,000 will still be reporting to offices inadequately prepared for the coronavirus.

Those newly critical employees include county assistance workers, child and senior care facility inspectors, and employees who process unemployment benefits. 

“They need to figure out ways that everyone gets benefits because of how many people lost their jobs. They’re right, we agree with them,” Catanese said. “But the fact is that they thought of no potential ways to limit the harm of people going in to do the work.”

Social distancing, Catanese said, was still wanting in offices with 100 employees, flouting federal guidelines calling for no gatherings of over 10 people in a room. Some assistance offices didn’t even have hand sanitizer, he added.

He called for the state to adopt staggered shifts and to limit commutes, especially in heavily impacted counties, to keep workers safe from the pandemic.

Catanese acknowledged that some jobs were hard to do remotely due to old state IT technology, as well as new visitor screenings to keep unhealthy people out of critical offices. But his concerns stood.

“I want management to care about the public as much as they do for their staff,” Catanese said, “and I don’t feel like the staff are cared about as much.”