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Governor Orders 1000s Of Businesses To Shut Down Over Virus

Matt Rourke
Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Gov. Tom Wolf issued a sweeping shutdown order to tens of thousands of “non-life-sustaining” businesses Thursday, decreeing they must close their physical locations by 8 p.m. to slow the spread of the coronavirus or face enforcement by state police and other government agencies.

Citing his authority under the state's disaster declaration law, Wolf ordered more than 150 types of businesses to close their physical locations, warning that enforcement against violators would begin Saturday. It was among the harshest measures yet taken by a U.S. governor in response to the virus pandemic.

"I had hoped for voluntary compliance so our public safety officials could focus on assisting with the crisis," Wolf said in a video statement. "Unfortunately we have not seen full compliance. We have no time to lose.”

Wolf said his order would be enforced by state troopers, local officials, the state Health and Agriculture departments and the Liquor Control Board. The two-term Democratic governor had previously said he would not use police for enforcement.

Businesses that fail to comply risk citations, fines or license suspensions, and "forfeit their ability to receive any applicable disaster relief and/or may be subject to other appropriate administrative action," Wolf's office said in a statement.

Criminal prosecution is also a possibility, with violators subject to fines or imprisonment, Wolf's office said.

Law enforcement will use discretion as they enforce the governor's order, Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said in a separate email, citing a "range of potential actions," including notifying people about the closure order, warnings, citations and what she termed “mandatory closure.”

Businesses permitted to remain open must practice social distancing and other measures to protect workers and patrons from contracting the virus, the governor's office said.

Among those allowed to stay open are gas stations, grocery stores, beer distributors, drugstores and building materials stores. Restaurants and bars can continue to offer carry-out, delivery and drive-thru food and drink service, but not dine-in service.

Hospitals, doctor's offices and dental offices are permitted to remain open, but the order prohibits elective health procedures as officials work to help hospitals create more capacity in anticipation of a surge in coronavirus patients.

Businesses under shutdown orders range from coal mines to building contractors to many types of manufacturers, plus professional offices including law firms and accounting offices.

Retailers ordered to close include car dealers, clothing stores, furniture stores, florists, office supply stores and lawn and garden stores.

Gene Barr, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, predicted Wolf's order — unprecedented in its scope — would cause alarm in the business community, but he acknowledged “this is a place where there’s no easy answers.”

“He is faced with a tough decision, doing something that we all know is going to have significant economic damage, balanced against the need to save lives,” Barr said.

The chamber will review the state's list of businesses deemed nonessential and potentially work to get some reopened, Barr said, but will not challenge Wolf's overall authority to mandate the closures.

“We’re going to do it. The governor said this is what you’re going to do, we’re going to do it, we’re going to comply," Barr said.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the order was initially very ambiguous, causing panic over whether hotels would have to shutdown and put guests out within hours. But the industry received assurances from the Wolf administration that lodging facilities are exempt.

"It would have meant thousands of guests put out on the street, without anywhere go to," Longstreet said. "We’ve got this resolved now."

The National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business advocacy group with 13,000 members in Pennsylvania, demanded to know the medical basis of the shutdown order, predicting it would cause personal and financial devastation. The group also said Wolf should have given companies more lead time to secure equipment and notify workers.

“We understand that there are necessary precautions that must be taken to protect life, but no other governor, even in states with many more cases and wider community spread, has taken this extreme action,” said Gordon Denlinger, NFIB state director in Pennsylvania.

Wolf's order came as Pennsylvania reported another big jump in confirmed coronavirus cases.

Confirmed coronavirus cases topped 180, up 40%, according to the state Department of Health. In Philadelphia, officials reported that 20 of the 44 cases there are health care workers, although they were not all exposed at work.

Meanwhile, with schools ordered shut for at least the rest of March and possibly longer, the state Education Department canceled statewide tests for schoolchildren because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said her agency is asking hospitals, starting Friday, to update their emergency plans to accommodate patents who contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The department is lifting a regulation that prevents a hospital from adding beds without permission, and is trying to make sure that hospitals have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and ventilators.

WESA will be surveying Pennsylvania candidates for federal and state office for the 2022 general election — tell us which issues are most important to you.