Wolf amends order to allow later alcohol sales for restaurants, owners say it’s not enough

Starting Monday bars and restaurants in Pennsylvania can operate at 50% capacity, and they’ll be able to serve alcohol until 11 p.m.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed new orders that will go into place Sep. 21 that slightly amended his original orders that the establishments must stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. with the new higher capacity.

Wolf did not comment on the change, but there had been a great deal of outcry from restaurant groups who called the curfew restrictive and argued that it unfairly targeted certain establishments like sports bars. They specifically mentioned the 10 p.m. curfew as particularly restrictive.

While the new ruling improves on that, John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the change still isn’t what the industry was hoping for.

“Unfortunately, the order does not go far enough to return the industry to the standards in place before July 15. We urge the Governor’s office to take further action to ease the economic pain inflicted by operating restrictions. The PRLA advocates for normal operating hours, eliminating the meal requirement and the ban on bar seating, allowing events to operate at 50% capacity, and permitting restaurant capacity at a minimum of 50% capacity while removing the self-certification component that no other industry must sign to operate,” he said in a written statement.

Establishments that want to increase from the current 25% to 50% capacity for indoor seating still need to self-certify that they are adhering to COVID-19 mitigation efforts to help keep employees and customers safe. Self-certification forms should be submitted by Oct. 5, when enforcement begins, but will be online on the state’s website after that.

While the new rules include a later curfew for alcohol sales, those sales are being enforced. The establishments many serve alcohol until 11 p.m., but any alcoholic drinks must be finished or taken away by midnight.

The governor’s office said any health and safety violations from self-certified businesses will be handled first with warnings and education rather than fines or other penalties.

Governor Tom Wolf calls for support of paid sick leave legislation

Saying the COVID-19 pandemic has made the issue more important than ever, Gov. Tom Wolf called on the general assembly to pass legislation for paid sick and family leave time.

“Pennsylvania workers have waited long enough, and the pandemic has made the need for paid sick leave more urgent,” said Gov. Wolf. “All employees should have healthy and safe workplaces. There are many paid sick and family leave bills in the legislature, and I’m committed to working with the General Assembly to finally get workers the earned leave they deserve.”

Providing paid sick leave would improve public health and help to prevent more people from getting sick because workers would be able to stay home when feeling ill, he said.

Under Senate Bill 580, the Family Care Act, paid sick leave can be used to recover from an illness, such as COVID-19, for medical appointments, to care for a family member, or to seek help from abuse or violence.

The governor also announced that the state government’s new paid parental leave policy will take effect Oct. 15.

State employees will be eligible for up to six weeks of paid parental leave to care for a child after a birth, adoption, or foster care placement.

The new policy is separate from any accrued sick or paid time off that the employee may have earned.

Eight states and Washington D.C. have approved legislation to create paid family and medical leave insurance programs.

Pa. businesses receive ‘hazard pay’ grants for front-line workers

Dozens of Central Pennsylvania businesses and service agencies with employees on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, have received part of $50 million in state grants to provide those workers with hazard pay.

Gov. Wolf announced the recipients of the grants in industries ranging from health care to food service, janitorial and transportation.

Grant funds can be used for hazard pay for direct, full-time and part-time employees earning less than $20 per hour for the 10-week period from Aug. 16 through Oct. 24.

The money is to be used to give those employees a $3 per hour “hazard” pay increase for that period.

Employers could apply for up to $1,200 per eligible full-time equivalent employee, up to 500 eligible full-time equivalent employees per location.

“Pennsylvania’s front-line workers put themselves and their loved ones at risk each day they report to work to ensure the continuation of critical goods and services for their communities, and hazard pay is an important opportunity to compensate these vital workers,” said Gov. Wolf in a release.

Among the employers that received funding in the area are Brethern Village in Lancaster County received $308,160.00; Misericordia Convalescent Home in York County received $40,920; Schaad Detective Agency Inc. of York received $196,200; Mom Foods Inc., dba Market on Market, in Dauphin County received $11,466.

The entire list of recipients is available here.

The administration said demand for the funds was high. During the two-week application window, the state received more than 10,000 applications totaling nearly $900 million.

Of those applications more than 5,000 businesses — requesting $300 million — were eligible.

A total of $50 million was distributed.

Interpreting the final stage of Gov. Wolf’s transition phase a challenge for business leaders

Red, yellow, green. 

From children’s playground games to traffic signals designed for orderly travel the longstanding meaning of these colors – and our ingrained behavior surrounding them – has been recast by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Those who eagerly looked forward to a return to normal and the “green phase” of Gov. Tom Wolf’s traffic-light themed stages to restart Pennsylvania’s economy have instead discovered green is far from what they’d expected. 

“The green phase was promising from the business perspective. Everyone expected green means go, we’d be open and back to normal, and that has not happened,” said Rebecca Warren, a partner at Norris McLaughlin P.A., a law firm with offices in New York City, Bridgewater, New Jersey and Allentown. Warren is based in Allentown and heads the firm’s labor and employment department there. 

Gene Barr, CEO and president of Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in Harrisburg suggested the color coding system may actually be part of the ongoing problem with setting business and the public’s expectations. Many restrictions, including a maximum of 250 people attending outdoor events, restaurants currently at 25 percent capacity, bars closed and other requirements that become obstacles for industry, may not coincide with what “green” would mean to most people.

“The state maybe shouldn’t have used green as this phase of the transition,” he said. “Green really doesn’t mean go.”

Warren agreed.

“When we opened into the graduated [yellow] phase, I think people were expecting it would be a seamless transition, and green was going to follow rather quickly,” she said. 

But, instead of returning to business as usual many managers and owners are experiencing frustration, confusion and concern over how to meet a rapid and often changing roster of requirements that continue to plague and confound them on a daily basis.

Bill Kirk, CEO and founder of Weather Trends International, Inc. in Hanover Township, Northampton County, said his biggest frustration resulted from having a solid plan to reopen the office of about 10 employees on July 20, only to have the rules change right after they were released. He decided to continue with a remote workforce through the rest of 2020.

Kirk has added two positions since the pandemic began in March, and while the company was already scaled for remote working, it is nonetheless challenging.

“It’s traumatic for employees forced in a remote home situation with no child care. It’s a challenge for those who were not used to working from home, and it is not what they wanted,” he said.

During the yellow phase, Warren was consulting several businesses about what their reopening and return to work policies would look like. “We never thought we’d reopen in the green phase, essentially to be closed again,” she said.

Many felt blindsided by sudden reopening rollbacks. The constant revisions create confusion, Warren said. Frustrated business owners are faced with the unprecedented short- and long-term impacts on their businesses, as well as managing clients, vendors and employee safety. Most are doing their best to continue to operate within the moving target guidelines, she said, but it’s hard to be told, often within 24 hours, that they need to shut down again.

“The only solace for business owners [right] now is they are not alone,” Warren said. 

Jim Rodgers expected the green phase to allow his company to hire summer interns and fresh-out-of-college graduates to fill positions at Dawood Engineering, Inc., in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County, where he is chief strategic officer. “Longer term, mentoring and developing less experienced staff or interns when you can’t work shoulder-to-shoulder with someone” has been challenging, he said.

The annual process of making new professional hires out of college, and training them with experienced professionals “side-by-side” has been upended. “We’ve delayed hiring until we understood what the crisis would be. We thought it would be two or four weeks,” Rodgers said.

Getting it done

The company has remained open throughout the pandemic, servicing critical and life sustaining business sites such as medical facilities and utilities. “We had to figure out how to do that,” Rodgers said.

Prior to the green phase Dawood was able to quickly pivot and set up remote work situations. Collaboration between various disciplines required in the industry, from professional engineers to planners and graphic professionals, is challenging in an ongoing virtual format. But Dawood, like many companies, is adjusting and preparing for the long haul. The pandemic accelerated the schedule for moving many daily office functions to an online format. 

“This forced us to get really good, really fast to work in a remote environment, and the industry is on the course toward more electronic use…but our client and regulatory base was not prepared for that,” Rodgers said.

The company opted to take a conservative approach and continued to allow staff to work remotely, even before Pennsylvania went into the green phase. 

For those who want to return to the office, workspace has been reshuffled” to accommodate best social distancing practices and Center for Disease Control recommendations.

And among the biggest challenges has been making hard copy prints of concepts, plans and designs. Getting time on large-format industry equipment is achieved by staggering employees in the office, he said. 

Rodgers said one of the pandemic’s silver linings has been the remote setup, along with the potential to attract and hire new employees outside the company’s standard geographic footprint. “This gives us an opportunity now… [to] take advantage of a wider labor pool,” he said.

Leigh Twiford, owner of FirstLight Home Care in Lemoyne, Cumberland County, did not close during any stages of the pandemic. FirstLight provides home-based health care services to a mostly older client base. Business slowed down as a result of the early ban on elective surgeries, such as knee or hip replacement, along with at home rehabilitation care, many clients employ her services as an overall aging-in-place strategy, so they can remain in their homes for as long as possible. 

“In my fantasy world we were all going to back to normal, but…I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the normal we used to know, I think we’ll be living a new normal,” Twiford said.

Lebanon County files suit over withholding of CARES Act funding

Lebanon County wants its money.

The county government is petitioning the Commonwealth Court to order Gov. Tom Wolf to release $12.8 million in CARES Act funding being withheld.

The county filed suit Wednesday morning over the matter, just days after Wolf’s decision to not release the funding through the County Relief Block Grant program became public.

Wolf confirmed during a news conference last week that Lebanon would not receive nearly $13 million through the CARES Act and indicated it was a consequence of the county commissioners’ 2-1 vote in May to move Lebanon to the yellow phase of reopening against state orders.

During the news conference last week, Wolf denied it was “retribution,” but referenced the yellow phase vote, saying while other counties made the threat, Lebanon was the only county to follow through with it.

“When they were saying ‘We’re not going to abide by the restrictions we’re going to make our own rules or regulations,’ … OK, then don’t come say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules,” Wolf said last week. “There are consequences, these are the consequences.”

The CARES Act is intended to help with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said last week that the money the county is looking for can go toward acquiring personal protective equipment, helping small businesses or those affected by the decline in tourism or providing grant assistance to local non-profits.

The suit states that every day Wolf does not release the money “results in irreparable harm to the County of Lebanon, its economy, residents, businesses and non-profit entities.”

The governor’s office declined comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, but during a news conference Tuesday, Wolf said they would wait on a court ruling after a reporter asked about a potential suit.

“66 counties went along with all the orders and it actually worked in Pennsylvania. One county chose not to, they apparently didn’t feel they need the money at that point, so I think we’ll see what the court’s ruling is,” Wolf said.

Wolgemuth declined comment beyond the lawsuit. County solicitor Dave Warner said they planned to file a petition for expedited review in court to fasttrack the suit.

What the county is arguing

Lebanon is arguing that Wolf has not complied with Act 24, which is legislation that provides counties with block grants through the CARES Act.

The lawsuit takes issue with a provision added by the state requiring counties follow orders and regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic to be eligible for the CARES Act funding as reasoning for withholding the funds.

A resolution approved by the two Republican county commissioners, Bill Ames and Bob Phillips, on May 15, officially moved just county operations to yellow phase guidelines.

The resolution stated that the move was not  “binding or directive on any private sector enterprise that operates within Lebanon County. Limitations on businesses still exist at the civil and state level and it is incumbent upon those businesses to know the risks, especially if subject to state regulation or licensure.” Several Lebanon elected officials also encouraged businesses to reopen against state health guidelines.

Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf – who signed a letter from Lebanon’s Republican elected officials that stated Lebanon would move itself to the yellow phase – said in May that her office would not prosecute any businesses that chose to reopen to yellow phase guidelines.

“It’s not a guarantee that (businesses) won’t face issues above Lebanon County,”  Phillips said during the May 15 meeting where they approved the resolution. “But this is meant for us to give our courthouse to be open and (be) an example, and also include all businesses in this that will not be prosecuted on the county level.”

After elected officials in Lebanon and other counties threatened to move themselves to the yellow phase in May, Wolf warned days before the commissioners’ vote that those who followed through would risk losing discretionary federal stimulus funds.

A spokesperson for Wolf said last week that “Lebanon County leadership put its business owners and residents at risk when it violated the law earlier this year by unilaterally moving the county from red to yellow in defiance of the governor’s orders deeming the county ineligible for CARES Funding.”

“The governor’s disaster mitigation orders have the force and effect of law,” spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email.

In the suit filed this week, Lebanon County is arguing that the eligibility requirements added by the suit are a “gross abuse of power and not supported by the Emergency Powers Act.”

“Governor Wolf’s refusal to release Act 24’s designated funds to the County of Lebanon, effectively consolidates a complete legislative power in the executive branch during a declared state of emergency with no check or limit by the legislature, which fundamentally flies in the face of Pennsylvania’s system of government, creating a de-facto King with the ability to revoke, amend, or enact any provision of any legislation passed through the bicameral legislature and presented to and signed by himself at his own whim,” the suit reads.

For independent physicians, obtaining PPE is an ongoing struggle

Maintaining personal protection equipment for patients and staff has become a full-time job for independent health care providers who have not received the help from the state that their counterparts in health care systems have.

Facing a potential second wave to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson Siegelbaum Gastroenterology in East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, created a four-person team to monitor the stock of PPE at its offices and laboratory.

Through the inventory management team, the gastroenterology clinic maintains its supply of PPE and calculates a burn rate that tells management how long the facilities will be able to operate if supply chains fail.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and the state Department of Health distributed over 5.2 million N95 masks, 621,000 gowns, 4,782,000 gloves and more to hospitals, long-term care facilities, first responders and other providers in need of PPE. But the state has yet to provide the same equipment to independent physicians, instead encouraging them to seek PPE through their own vendors, health care coalitions or the state’s COVID-19 PPE and supplies business to business portals.

However, PPE continues to be difficult to obtain for providers, 20% of whom have only a one week supply in stock, according to a survey of 983 physicians conducted in late April by the Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED).

Since the April survey, the stream of PPE to providers has continued to be slow moving.

“Hospitals got what they needed but for practices to open up and keep patients out of the hospitals, we need more PPE,” said Dr. David Talenti, vice president at PAMED and a gastroenterologist at Wayne County-based Northern Gastroenterology Associates.

To ensure that its members have the PPE they need to stay open safely, PAMED purchases provisions through Action PPE, a collaborative bulk PPE supplier launched by the Charleston County Medical Society in South Carolina. The collaborative allows PAMED to increase its buying power and access more PPE than a single office. But, even with the increased buying power, some equipment is still hard to find.

“There are some things that we are scraping by with,” he said. “We have K95 respirator masks that expose our providers to a higher risk of infection. The N95’s were stockpiled by larger systems and the K95 respirator doesn’t seal properly.”

Jackson Siegelbaum Gastroenterology is using PAMED’s access to Action PPE in concert with its own management team and has been able to stock more than a month of PPE.

“When you are a smaller practice, you are really reliant on your own internal resources and relationships with vendors to get the necessary equipment,” said Dr. Wilson Jackson, a partner at Jackson Siegelbaum. “The society helped us get access but we’ve also worked really hard to get access to what we needed.”

Talenti’s office has also been stuck by the lack of provisions. He noted that the facility has one staff member on the phone contacting between 20 to 25 suppliers daily just to ensure that the clinic continues to have a supply.

If there is a large second wave of the virus and the state elects to pause elective surgeries as it did earlier in the pandemic, gastroenterology clinics such as Jackson Siegelbaum and Northern Gastroenterology would close, he said. Jackson said a more pressing concern will be if the pandemic continues to smolder and the practice needs to continue to stock PPE in the way it is now.

In late April, PAMED sent a letter to the Governor asking the state to make a percentage of the PPE stockpile available to independent providers. In the letter, Dr. Lawrence John, the society’s president, said that the lack of PPE in private practices could result in a closure of practices and an increased stress on local hospitals.

“These private practitioners are keeping patients away from emergency departments so that health systems can effectively treat COVID-19 patients, yet they cannot obtain PPEs,” John wrote. “Daily we are hearing of practices closing or indicating that they are within days of ceasing life sustaining care and treatments. Without help from private practitioners, patients will have no choice but to go to hospitals for care.”

Neither the DOH or Governor Wolf’s office have responded to the letter.

Gov. Wolf to close bars, reduce restaurant seating to stop COVID resurgence

Governor Tom Wolf PHOTO/FILE –


As Pennsylvania’s rate of COVID-19 infections begin to climb since moving into the green phase of the state’s reopening plan, Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to issue new orders today that will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. July 16. This is according to a Facebook post by state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon.

According to Diamond, the new orders will prohibit all bars from conducting operations unless they offer sit-down, dine-in meals. All service must be at a table or booth. Bar service is prohibited. Eating establishments will be limited to 25 percent of stated fire-code maximum occupancy for indoor dining. Indoor gatherings are limited to 25 people.

Diamond’s post also notes the following:

The maximum occupancy limit includes staff.

Alcohol only can be served for on-premises consumption when in the same transaction as a meal.

Take-out sales of alcohol for the purposes of off-site consumption are permitted subject to any limitations or restrictions imposed by Pennsylvania law.

All businesses in the retail food services industry, including restaurants, wineries, and bars, are permitted to provide take-out and delivery sales of food, as well as dine-in service in both indoor and outdoor seating areas so long as they strictly adhere to the requirements of the guidance, as required by the order, including:

Non-bar seating in outdoor areas (i.e., tables or counter seats that do not line up to a bar or food service area) may be used for customer seating.

Customers being served must be seated at a table.

Social distancing, masking, and other mitigation measures must be employed to protect workers and patrons.

Nightclubs are prohibited from conducting operations.

Teleworking is also being emphasized

Unless not possible, all businesses are required to conduct their operations in whole or in part remotely through individual teleworking of their employees in the jurisdiction or jurisdictions in which they do business.

Where telework is not possible, employees may conduct in-person business operations, provided that the businesses fully comply with all substantive aspects of the business safety order, the worker safety order, and the masking order.

All gyms and fitness facilities, while permitted to continue indoor operations, are directed to prioritize outdoor physical fitness activities. All activities must follow masking requirements as provided by the July 1 order, and must provide for social distancing requirements of persons being at least 6 feet apart.

Bill would ban ’gag clauses’ that prevent pharmacists from sharing info on cheaper drugs

A bill that would ban pharmacy benefit managers from imposing so-called “gag clauses” on pharmacists to keep them from telling customers about cheaper generic drugs is headed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk to be signed into law.

“People have a right to affordable health care and to get the best price possible for their prescription drugs,” state Rep. Valerie Gaydos, R-44, Aleppo Township, said in a statement after her House Bill 943 unanimously passed the House on Tuesday.

“Oftentimes, there are several inexpensive, generic medicines for which an insurance co-pay can often be more expensive than if the patient simply pays out-of-pocket, bypassing their insurance company altogether,” said Gaydos. “I have personally heard from many pharmacists in my district who want to help their customers find low-cost alternatives, but they are unfortunately forbidden from doing so.”

The bill, introduced by Gaydos in April 2019, initially passed the House unanimously in November. It was amended and unanimously passed by the Senate and then the House approved the amended version this week.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, the Democratic candidate for the 10th Congressional District in south-central Pennsylvania, has been a proponent of reforming the pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) in the state, including prohibiting gag clauses, and released reports on PBMs in 2018 and 2019.

Among their responsibilities, PBMs set drug reimbursement rates for pharmacies and determine which medicines are covered by insurance. DePasquale has said that Pennsylvania paid PBMs $2.86 million in 2017 for services to Medicaid enrollees, a 100% increase from 2013.

Independent pharmacies have long complained that the constraints placed on them by PBMs are driving them out of businesses or forcing them to sell to corporate pharmacy chains.

“As I’ve warned for years, gag clauses ultimately prevent pharmacists from giving customers practical advice on how to save money on their prescriptions,” DePasquale said in a statement. “In some cases, consumers might save money by paying cash instead of using their insurance, but gag clauses stop pharmacists from volunteering that helpful advice unless a customer specifically asks.”

State Rep. Rob Matzie, D-16, Ambridge, the House Democratic chairman of the Community Pharmacy Caucus, has also called for reforms to PBMs and introduced legislation, mired in the Senate, that would increase transparency in PBM pricing practices for Medicaid prescription drugs.

“I am pleased a bill from a package of legislation is getting across the finish line,” Matzie said on Wednesday. “This pro-consumer bill will allow pharmacists the opportunity to discuss lower priced alternatives removing the so-called ‘gag clause’ that limits a medical provider from disclosing costs to a patient. Any provision that prevents full disclosure has no place in law.”

Pa. directs another $53M to support child care providers

Governor Tom Wolf visited the child care center at PSECU headquarters in Harrisburg today to announce $53 million in additional financial support for child care providers that have suffered during COVID-19. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –


Child care providers that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic will be getting additional financial support from the state.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf today announced another $53 million in financial support for child care providers.

“This funding will help child care providers bridge the gap until their clientele returns,” Gov. Wolf said. “It will also help them with any increased costs that have been incurred due to the pandemic – things like cleaning and sanitization, which will help keep the 386,000 children who attend our licensed child care facilities safe, as well as the workers who do so much to care for them.”

Last month the state distributed $51 million in CARES Act Child Care Development Funds to eligible child care providers.

This $53 million is also from CARES Act funding and will be distributed this month.

Another $116 million from Act 24 will be distributed in the coming months, bringing the total sum of financial support to $220 million, Wolf said.

The funding is distributed through the Department of Human Services’ Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL), which licenses child care providers in the state.

According to OCDEL there are 7,017 licensed child care providers in Pennsylvania.

Of those, 65 have permanently closed as of June 24.

Because of currently closed child care providers declining the last round of funding, it said it expect at least 100 additional child care providers to remain closed.

“While we do not know how this pandemic will look in a week, a month, or a year, we know that a healthy, robust child care system will be critical to weather the economic recovery ahead,” DHS Sec. Teresa Miller said.

She said the state is working with Penn State Harrisburg’s Institute of State and Regional Affairs on an impact study to understand challenges for child care providers to determine where further investments will be made to make sure there is adequate child care to meet the workforce needs.

“Stable, affordable, high-quality child care is an important piece of our workforce development,” Gov. Wolf said. “In fact, my Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center identified it as one of the biggest hurdles to getting more Pennsylvanians into the workforce. As we continue to recover economically from this pandemic, we will need child care available so parents can resume working, or so they can attend training programs or job interviews.”

Home buyers face competition as demand rises

The residential real estate market is so busy, there aren’t enough homes for sale to keep up with demand, Lancaster County agents say.

“It’s crazy,” said Carole Kirchner, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeSales Services.

Before Gov. Tom Wolf lifted the COVID-19 restrictions on in-person showings last month, virtual tours were the method buyers relied on to view a property. But virtual tours don’t show the water in the basement or the rot in the wood, Kirchner said. There’s no substitute for physically looking at a house and getting the bird’s-eye view.

Kirchner works with a lot of first-time buyers, and she’s seeing renters who want to purchase. Rents are high and interest rates are low, she said, making home buying a smart option. But inventory is limited, she said. Buyers can make bids on multiple houses – even well above the asking price – and still be turned down.

One purchaser even wanted a property so badly a sales agreement was reached without a home inspection, which in normal circumstances is unavoidable.

“It’s really stressful if you’re a buyer,” she said. “You have to act within a day or two,” or some other buyer will get there first.

National numbers for May aren’t yet available. But the National Association of Realtors reported that housing inventory was down almost 20% in April from the year before, as people didn’t list their homes or pulled them off the market.

It’s common for houses to have 10 or more showings a day. In this climate, a lot of sellers are setting deadlines for buyers’ best offers, Kirchner.

People also are practicing social distancing and wearing masks when they tour, she said, so they’re abiding by the governor’s COVID-19 guidelines.

Her advice for entry-level buyers is to be patient. “It will happen that you find your house, but unfortunately you may lose out on several along the way,” Kirchner said. “In the end, it’s a great decision to be a homeowner.”

Tom Weik, of Kingsway Realty, is seeing the same thing. Buyers “are out there in swarms.”

There’s a decent amount of inventory, he said, but the surge in new listings he expected once restrictions were lifted hasn’t materialized. So houses for sale are producing multiple offers, even $25,000 to $30,000 above the asking price.

“It’s slim pickings in and around $150,000,” Weik said, which puts a lot of first-timers out of the market.

Even in Lancaster city, properties that would typically sell for under $100,000 have been bought by investors and upgraded substantially. Now they’re selling for $180,000 and up, he said.

Properties all over the city are getting multiple offers. “Lancaster’s come a long way,” Weik said.

Jeff LeFevre, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeSales Services, said inventory is beginning to build. “That was an issue.” Demand, however, has exploded, he said. Some of that is backlog: buyers who were about to purchase before the pandemic shutdown. Now there are new people in the market, too.

Like Kirchner, LeFevre reported lots of showings, including 25 in three days on a single property. This is the case even in more modest neighborhoods, he said. “Things are happening.”

Wolf orders all long-term care providers to test staff and residents for COVID-19

All long-term care providers in the state, including nursing, personal care and assisted living facilities, are required to complete initial COVID-19 baseline testing on all staff and residents by July 24, according to a new order issued by the Wolf administration.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is expanding testing to find any long-term care residents who could be carrying the virus, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement on Monday.

“We are working tirelessly to include all long-term care facilities in this strategy as soon as possible,” Levine said. “At this point, we are able to successfully expand testing and support to all staff and residents to further protect those in nursing homes across Pennsylvania.”

The state’s order mirrors a similar recommendation released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) late last month.

In its recommendation, the federal department asked for nursing homes across the country to halt all plans to reopen or relax any restrictions until all residents and staff have received a baseline test to establish that no known cases of the virus are in the facility.

Facilities in Pennsylvania will also be asked to continue weekly testing of all residents and staff for at least 14 days since their most recent positive result.

Adam Marles, president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, a senior housing trade association based in Mechanicsburg, commended the department for releasing guidance on mandated testing, but noted that he plan does not appear to provide guidance on how facilities will secure the testing.

“The Emergency CARES Act funding approved last week provides relief for the costs long-term care facilities already incurred during the pandemic, but as new positive cases are confirmed through universal testing, the need for additional resources will grow,” Marles said. “Staff replacement and additional costs for care for newly-identified positive cases will create a significant strain on providers.”

The order does not specify if there will be a penalty for facilities that do not test their staff or residents by July 24.

Builders report a smooth transition as they return to work

Terre Hill contractor Phil Snader was about to begin a new job for a client when COVID-19 brought the construction industry – and much of Pennsylvania’s economy – to a halt in mid-March. 

“I had the excavator lined up, all ready to roll,” said Snader, owner of Whitetail Homes. The shutdown “threw some major rocks in the cogs,” he said. 

Snader said the business also includes his son Chad, and they managed to tide themselves over with odd jobs for family and friends. Then Gov. Tom Wolf gave construction the green light to resume May 1, under specific safety and health guidelines.

Now Snader and his son are back to building the addition Whitetail Homes was working on before the pandemic hit, he said.

Lancaster County contractors of varying sizes, like Snader, are ramping up activity, with a few glitches, such as a shortage of certain supplies. Some even report interest from new customers – a pleasant surprise they weren’t expecting in this economic climate. 

Karen Watkins, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Lancaster County, said what she’s been hearing most from members is that they’re just glad to be back to work. That’s the “big, exciting piece,” she said. One issue that’s come up is some municipalities remain closed, Watkins said, so they can’t do building inspections. 

There have also some concerns expressed about the safety protocol restrictions. One of these restrictions is that “residential construction projects may not permit more than four individuals on the job site at any time, not including individuals who require temporary access to the site and are not directly engaged in the construction activity,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.

Watkins said home builders would like to be on a par with commercial contractors – where the number of workers allowed depends on the size of the site – and that goal is being worked toward “through the proper channels.” 

What members want is a way to be safe and to work, she said.

Business ramping up 

Jordan Metzler, vice president of Metzler Home Builders, Lancaster, said activity was very brisk prior to the shutdown, and there was even a backlog. 

The business does custom single homes, residential developments, and remodeling projects. 

Jordan Metzler, vice president of Metzler Home Builders, Lancaster, said he was able to use PPP funding to keep his employees working during the pandemic. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

Metzler said none of the company’s 10 employees was laid off. Instead, their hours were reduced and they were able to work on smaller jobs, such as weatherproofing or emergency repairs. The business also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which helped. 

When the industry reopened, projects that were already in the pipeline resumed, Metzler said. “We’ve started one home” since the hiatus ended.

There have been leads and calls on new business as well, he said, which surprised him.  

Phil Snader also reported getting calls during the shutdown about potential jobs.

“I think (business will) bounce back,” he said, unless uncertainty causes lots of customers to pause. 

Rick Martin, president of Wheatland Custom Homes & Remodeling Inc., Ephrata, said he’s been doing remodeling and additions the last five or six years because there isn’t much housing construction business for smaller builders. 

“I decided not to beat my head against the wall,” he said, so he switched from building homes to doing jobs for people. 

He also is a project manager for Lancaster County Career & Technology Center, so he’s been putting the finishing touches on a student-built house in Mount Joy Township, which has sold. 

One difference he’s noticed since the pandemic? New trucks around, with signs of contractors he doesn’t recognize. 

“I used to know everybody,” Martin said. “Now I don’t.” 

Hess Home Builders, Lancaster, constructs single-family houses, but the majority of its business is now multifamily projects, said Randy Hess, president. It’s currently building apartments in Dover, York County.

After the shutdown, the company was up and running again May 1, he said. 

But getting to full speed is hampered right now because of supply shortages, Hess said. Some manufacturers stopped production or scaled down, creating a bottleneck for certain supplies when activity resumed. 

“We’re still waiting for windows,” he said. 

There are also time constraints on subcontractors, Hess added, because everyone got back to work at once. “I told customers, ‘Don’t ask for a schedule.’ ” 

The week the industry closed down, Hess Home Builders was scheduled to dig out four new homes. Now, “unbelievably,” given the COVID-19-driven recession, the company is picking up additional customers as well, he said. 

During the hiatus, the business laid off 17 of its 21 employees, but with a Paycheck Protection Program loan, was able to pay them before the construction was cleared by the state to reopen, Hess said.

Now all 21 are back to work. 

Dutch Quality Inc.’s seven employees initially went on unemployment before the contractor received a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help with payroll, said Vice President Keith Petrisek.

The Lancaster company is a design build firm, with a main focus on remodeling and additions. “We occasionally do custom homes,” Petrisek said. 

When the construction shutdown was lifted, “we weren’t sure what we would find,” he said, with so much unknown. Some people understandably had concerns about moving forward with projects, Petrisek said, but about 90% of customers want to go ahead. Business “really hasn’t slowed down at all.” 

In-law quarters are a staple of Dutch Quality’s business – even more now with the worries about the coronavirus and nursing homes, Petrisek said. 

“Safety is our first concern” he said of the COVID-19 guidelines.

With safeguards in place at job sites, and workers following safe practices, “we can continue to stay open.”