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‘It’s devastating!’ Restaurants, small businesses unhappy with Gov. Wolf’s latest COVID-19 shutdown

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Businesses across the state, especially in the restaurant industry, are unhappy with news of another COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s devastating, absolutely devastating,” said Jim Fris, president and CEO of the PJW Restaurant Group, which operates P.J. Whelihan’s restaurants and a number of other brands in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania. “To have to go out to more than 1,000 employees and tell them they’re not going to be able to work three weeks before Christmas is just devastating.”

On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf said indoor dining and alcohol sales would be shut down between Dec. 12 and Jan. 4, to slow the progress of the virus.

Indoor gyms, casinos, arcades and movie theaters are also being closed.

But the restaurant industry has long said it feels singled out by the COVID-19 restrictions.

“Once again, small business taverns and licensed restaurants are bearing the brunt of the mitigation order with no financial or legislative help on the horizon,” said Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association in a statement.  “We get that the virus is contagious. We get that the number of confirmed cases and hospitalizations are increasing. What we don’t get is why our state government has asked the industry to sacrifice so much, but continues to sacrifice the industry.”

Wolf said the move was based on multiple studies showing that indoor dining is a driver of infections and deaths.

study by JP Morgan analyzed credit card spending of more than 30 million Chase cardholders and Johns Hopkins University’s case tracker and found that higher restaurant spending in a state predicted a rise in new infections three weeks later.

Additionally, research from Stanford University found that restaurants accounted for a significant amount of new infections while research from Yale University found that closing restaurants reduced fatality rates.

Fris said one of his biggest beefs with the announcement was its timing. Not only are the holidays one of restaurants’ busiest seasons, but he made the announcement on a Thursday, with little notice meaning restaurants had already bought their food for the weekend, food that may now go to waste. The restaurant industry has been asking the state to give adequate notice if there was going to be another shutdown.

“The way he did this is completely wrong,” Fris said.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, noted that the provision, which allows for outdoor dining, isn’t going to be helpful.

“Restaurants find it increasingly challenging to conduct outdoor dining as temperatures dip and realistically cannot survive on takeout, delivery, and carry out alone,” he said in a statement.

The National Federation of Independent Business in Pennsylvania, which represents 13,000 small businesses in the state, said Wolf’s order will be a “death knell for struggling shops and stores.”

“Governor Wolf expresses verbal concern over the harms to small business, but his actions indicate a total lack of understanding of what is really happening,” said Gordon Denlinger, NFIB’s Pennsylvania’s state director. “Unfortunately, Governor Wolf’s order was not coupled with any plan, to support the hundreds of business owners, their employees, and families his measures will impact.”

Longstreet echoed that concern.

“When shutdowns came in March, the federal government created several safety nets for businesses and employees through the Paycheck Protection Program and additional unemployment compensation,” he said. “Those programs no longer exist this time around, and there is no guarantee Congress will act to extend them soon. Many of our industry’s employees used up their unemployment compensation eligibility from the first shutdown.”

While many businesses affected by the shutdown are unhappy, some groups think the shutdown orders don’t go far enough.

Public interest advocacy group PennPIRG said the state is at a critical point in the fight against COVID-19 and the decisions made by leaders today will determine how many lives are saved.

“The past few weeks have seen COVID-19 surging across the country, and Pennsylvania is no exception,” said PennPIRG advocate Emma Horst-Mart. “By limiting some of the most high-risk activities and where people can gather together indoors, Governor Wolf is protecting public health. While the governor is taking some right steps, given how quickly and widely the virus is spreading in the state, we need a stronger response. The quickest way to lower cases dramatically is to close all non-essential businesses and ensure that people stay home.”

Stacy Wescoe
Writer Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at swescoe@bridgetowermedia.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4104. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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