COVID-19 Policies Devastate Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Economy

HARRISBURG – The Senate Majority Policy Committee reviewed the devastating impact of Governor Wolf’s extended COVID-19 closure orders on northeastern Pennsylvania’s economy and the resulting shuttering of businesses and local job losses, according to Committee Chairman David G. Argall (R-Berks/Schuylkill).

Senator Argall cited the recent announcement by Gitman Brothers of the impending closure of its clothing factory in Ashland, Schuylkill County, after 88 years and the loss of 90 jobs as a direct result of the Governor’s directives.

“We certainly have all seen the devastating effects this shutdown has had on our friends and neighbors, employees, employers and the communities that host these businesses and non-profits all over Pennsylvania,” Senator Argall said. “We have been told that some of these employers will take years to financially recover and some unfortunately have had no choice but to close their workplaces even after being in operation for decades and decades.”

Officials appearing at the workshop included U.S. Senator Bob Casey, U.S. Representative Dan Meuser, Robert S. Carl, Jr. of the Schuylkill County Chamber of Commerce, Chris Barrett from the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, and Dr. Steven Shapiro, UPMC Chief Medical Officer.

Panelists also included employers who were forced by the Governor’s executive order to shut down including Jim Nemeth of Autoneum North America, Inc., Savas Logothetides of the Wheel Restaurant in Pottsville, Loren Collura from Hope and Coffee in Tamaqua, and Deb Cody from Studio 16 Salon in Pottsville.

The testifiers stressed the devastating impact the business closures had on the region and were extremely critical of the arbitrary issuance of reopening waivers.

“The pandemic and the Commonwealth’s response has tilted the playing field for Pennsylvania’s businesses and non-profits beginning with the selection of ‘essential vs. non-essential’ businesses,” said Carl.  “The better benchmark would have been ability to operate safely within the national and state safety guidelines. That tilted playing field continues, solely in the hands of the Governor and his administration with limited, to no, input from the state Legislature, local county commissioners or the local healthcare and business community.”

A continued shutdown would have a serious impact on northeastern Pennsylvania, an area that depends heavily on income from tourism, according to Barrett. He said the tourism industry generated $4.2 billion in spending in 2019 and employed over 35,000 people — which accounts for 65 percent of the region’s labor income. A complete shutdown of the industry could result in a $1,500 per-person tax increase for everyone living in the Pocono Mountain region.

“We are now in the fight of our lives and our lifetimes from an economic standpoint. Almost as devastating as a war. All economic activity was halted. The comparison is unfortunate but correct,” Barrett said. “The ray of hope that we have seen throughout this is the unfailing determination, innovation, and grit of our people in the Poconos. They were presented with insurmountable odds and they survived. However, some will not survive. This is a tide we desire to stem.”

Local business leaders further detailed the impact COVID-19 and the prolonged shutdown have had on the region.

Nemeth said Autoneum’s Bloomsburg plant, which manufactures carpeting for automobiles, is one of 55 facilities operated by the corporation around the world and was the only one closed as a non-essential business. Pennsylvania was the only state in the United States and Mexico that restricted auto manufacturing he said.

“It is really illogical that we weren’t allow to operate when you look at some of the other companies in Columbia County that were,” he said.  Where’s the fairness or the consistency? Architectural metal companies could produce. There was a truck chassis company that could produce and that is part of the automotive industry. Dog food plants could work. There was even a company that made hot tubs that was allowed to work and we weren’t.”

Savas Logothetides, owner of the Wheel Restaurant in Pottsville, said national projections in the restaurant industry indicate that 85 percent of independent restaurants will not survive the pandemic. He added that most of those trying to reopen are finding it difficult to get basic items such as sanitizer and disposable plates and silverware. He added that limited seating mandated under green will also challenge the restaurant industry.

“The national restaurant industry is projecting that once reopened, 33 percent of guests will return immediately,” he said. Thirty-three percent will wait a few weeks to see what’s going on and 33 percent won’t return until there is a vaccine. That is a frightening number when looking at it from a macroeconomic standpoint.”

Collura said Hope and Coffee is a non-profit café in Tamaqua that supports recovery from addiction and employs those in recovery status and, as such, the forced closure impacted the business, its staff and patrons, on several levels.

“In addition to the economic struggle, the mental health of our employees and our customers — which are our number one concern as a business, as a café – has really declined,” she said. “Financial help has been beneficial, but the biggest help for mental health and recovery from addiction is social connection.”

Cody said that as a result of the three-month shutdown she lost business from customers who did their hair at home or patronized “underground” stylists, while incurring increased expenses for the necessary training and supplies to reopen safely.

“The closure has had a major impact on my business. I have had zero income for three months. I have drawn down a line of credit. I have taken the PPP loan,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult. I am minus $16,000 right now, so it’s a hole to scratch out of. Hopefully we will.”

Dr. Shapiro said the lessons learned from the pandemic have prepared Pennsylvania to meet any future waves of the virus.

“As we go back to work, if we protect the vulnerable and show caution, cases might rise — but likely won’t — but mortality will decrease,” Dr. Shapiro said. “This has been a wake-up call for our healthcare system, and our nation in general. Healthcare workers have stepped up to the challenge, and we will be here to help our society re-emerge safely and scientifically. One thing is certain, pandemics will be part of our future, and we must be better prepared. We can’t be put in a position to have to choose between death by pathogen or death by our economy.”

More information and video can be found on the Senate Majority Policy Committee’s website at http://policy.pasenategop.com.

 

Contact:         Joshua J. Paul – Executive Director, Senate Majority Policy Committee – (717) 787-2637