Fears renewed that Gov. Wolf’s latest COVID-19 restrictions will decimate small businesses

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Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday the implementation of a new round of COVID-19 mitigation efforts throughout the state that have drawn criticism from the PA Chamber of Business and Industry and several House Republican leaders that fear the devastating impact closures will have on small businesses and the state’s economy.

The mitigation mandates, which go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 12 and last until at least 8 a.m. on Jan. 4, include prohibiting all indoor dining, indoor gym use and in-person extracurricular school activities, limiting all indoor and outdoor gatherings, and imposing capacity limits for businesses. All in-person businesses in the entertainment industry, including but not limited to movie theaters, museums, casinos, are also prohibited from operation.

“Pennsylvanians have endured the coronavirus pandemic for nearly a year and are fully capable of determining what activities they are comfortable engaging in,” U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) said. “Governor Wolf’s latest order demonstrates that he does not trust us to make our own decisions.”

Kelly said that the order is unacceptable and should be lifted immediately.

“In mandating more business closures, he has guaranteed that more hard-working Pennsylvanians will lose their jobs as additional small businesses will close permanently,” he continued.

Additionally, State Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) said that mitigation efforts like these are going to overwhelm an already flawed Unemployment Compensation system.

“After seeing the damage that your previous shutdown orders have had on people and businesses in the spring, it is hard to imagine that another unilateral order of similar magnitude would have a different outcome,” Heffley said. “As seasonal unemployment claims naturally pick up, the last thing that people need is to be thrown back into an unemployment system that your administration has been incapable of handling.”

Wolf and State Secretary of Health Rachel Levine stated that the mitigation efforts are a result of increased reports of positive COVID-19 cases since the Thanksgiving holiday.

“The virus continues to strain our health care systems and the dramatic rise in cases among all age groups, including among school-age children, is alarming,” Levine said.

PA Chamber President Gene Barr noted his frustration with the Wolf administration’s lack of transparency and consultation before making this decision.

“Today’s announcement from the Wolf administration may not necessarily improve the Commonwealth’s public health situation, but it will certainly wreak economic devastation upon numerous businesses,” Barr said.  “The orders were announced without any consultation or feedback from the state’s business community.”

Barr continued, stating that the restaurant industry, one of the hardest hit during this pandemic, have already been carrying the burden of adhering to state and federal public health guidelines. Banning indoor dining, he said, will drive more people to private gatherings where this is little to no sanitizing, social distancing, or mask wearing.

“There is no doubt that cases are spiking,” Barr said. “However, rather than impose new measures in a vacuum, the state needs to more effectively enforce the efforts that are already in place.  As we have stressed multiple times, employers need the backing of law enforcement and state officials to effectively enforce the mandates that are designed to keep us safe – particularly mask wearing.”

State Rep. Jason Ortitay (R-Washington/Allegheny) said that, while he believes the governor is doing what he thinks is best, his decisions are based on data that has not been made available for the public. Businesses need state and federal aid, Ortitay said, adding that the mitigation efforts being used “are grounded in fear and recycling of old ideas that no longer work.”

“If Gov. Wolf is going to force these businesses to close and continue to tighten his hold through enforcement, then he needs to develop a way to pay them to stay closed,” Ortitay said. “You can save lives and livelihoods at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive…There is a way to balance this without being threatening.”

In his statement, Ortitay also outlined a different approach, based around the mitigation efforts detailed within the state’s green phase, that shows trust in the people of the Commonwealth. His suggested approach includes mask and social distancing orders in public settings, special hours for senior citizens and vulnerable populations in all businesses, and precautions enforced for in-person school learning. He also added that bars and restaurants should be empowered, not strongarmed, to adhere to public health guidelines.

“We need to treat the public with respect and not force unreasonable and unrealistic expectations on them by executive order,” he said.