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PA Counties Push To Reopen With Little Power To Protect Businesses ‘Caught In The Middle’

Jeffrey Stockbridge
Keystone Crossroads
Scenes from Chambersburg and Franklin County, December 2019.

Ever since several Pennsylvania counties announced they planned to begin allowing businesses to reopen in violation of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 mitigation order, Gene Barr, who heads the state’s Chamber of Business and Industry, has seen a distinct uptick in confused calls.

“It’s a really, really difficult position,” Barr said. “It puts businesses square in the middle of having to make a very, very difficult choice in terms of surviving, or facing some kind of reaction from authorities.”

Barr said he now has his advice for business owners and local chambers of commerce down pat. Even if they’re based in one of several counties that have declared plans to begin reopening, he tells them they have to operate at their own risk.

If they have state licenses — particularly, valuable liquor licenses which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — Barr tells owners they should weigh the possibility of losing them. And they should check with their insurers to see what will happen if they disobey state law.

That’s because no matter how frustrated county officials are with Wolf’s slow reopening process, they don’t have much real authority to declare themselves open or closed.

The wave of discontent crested early this week, with a handful of counties outside the hard-hit Southeast expressing firm intentions to reopen. But after Wolf announced he would use his power over licensing and cash disbursal to enforce closure orders, the effort flagged. A few days later, several counties have walked back their reopening plans. And in those that haven’t, it’s not actually clear what the “reopening” will change.

That’s even the case in Lancaster County, which has been one of the most steadfast in its officials’ commitment to starting the reopening process.

Lancaster has an advantage over some smaller counties, because its size means it already received federal CARES Act funding directly, to the tune of nearly $100 million. Like most of the counties that are moving to reopen, the plan Lancaster officials put together calls for a move into Wolf’s “yellow” phase on May 15 with some restrictions lifted.

County commissioners want to use their CARES Act money for a few concrete initiatives: a small business recovery plan, an effort to test nursing home residents and staff, and a contact tracing collaboration with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

But asked what authority the county has to begin reopening independently, the two GOP commissioners backing the effort — Joshua Parsons and Ray D’Agostino — acknowledged that they haven’t voted on any specific proposals, and that business owners will need to open with the understanding that the county can’t protect them from state retaliation.

D’Agostino said he’s hoping to correct what he sees as “chaos” caused by the Wolf administration’s unpredictable pattern of granting — and in some cases, subsequently revoking — business operation waivers.

“They don’t know where they stand,” he said. “All this has led to several law enforcement and district attorneys to announce they cannot enforce all these business closure orders, as the rule of law depends on fair and equal treatment.”

Read more from our partners, WHYY.

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