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Mitigation orders cripples struggling industries

In a year of seemingly unending challenges for businesses across the state, Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest mitigation orders will tragically be the final death knell for many, particularly in the hospitality industry. Banning indoor dining – along with the forced closure of gyms, theaters and museums – will further devastate Pennsylvania’s economy and lead to even more unemployment. While the PA Chamber appreciates the need to mitigate virus spread, this order continues a disheartening and unacceptable trend of the administration making policies in a vacuum, with decisions based on little input from industry experts or sound data.

The restaurant and hospitality sector has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic and those remaining are generally hanging on by a thread. To explain the latest restaurant shutdown order, the administration mentioned national studies, which, upon closer review, appear woefully inadequate to justify such a draconian measure. In fact, the authors of one of the studies reportedly asked the Governor to stop referencing their report when defending the administration’s actions. In addition, contact-tracing data from our neighboring state of New York showed that less than 1.5 percent of their confirmed COVID cases could be linked back to bars or restaurants. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said their tracing data showed that 74 percent of new cases were the result of household gatherings. Assuming Pennsylvania data is comparable, it’s not only fair, but critically important to question whether the restaurant shutdown will help and is worth inflicting irreversible pain from shutting down an entire industry?

Additionally troubling was the timing of the announcement. Since the early days of the pandemic’s arrival in Pennsylvania, this administration has repeatedly failed to take into consideration the realities facing business forced to comply with the various mitigation orders. Mitigation orders are often inexplicably announced late in the day with unrealistically rapid effective timeframes. Their actions have led to a chaotic, confusing and stressful environment for employers, and has had serious financial implications. The most recent order banning indoor dining was announced at 4 p.m. on a Thursday and went into effect at 12:01 a.m. that Saturday. Restaurant owners had already purchased food for the weekend and were estimated to be left on the hook with over $1.5 million worth of food. By contrast, many other states have given their hospitality sector at least a week’s notice of new mitigation orders, so that restaurants can plan accordingly. And it’s not just the owners of these businesses that are impacted: more than 26,000 hospitality employees were laid off the weekend following the governor’s order, according to the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.

This order also impacts more than just the restaurant industry. Theaters and museums, for example, were also told to close their doors until after the New Year. These facilities have maintained social distancing procedures, required visitors to wear masks, regularly sanitized and implemented other safety protocols. Where’s the data to justify closing these businesses as well?

The administration has also failed to address concerns that banning indoor dining and closing theaters and museums will have the adverse effect of driving more people to private gatherings where there may be minimal sanitizing, social distancing or mask wearing. Additionally, the impact the economic downturn – including the threat of business closures and job loss – has on Pennsylvanians’ mental health must be taken into account. According to testimony at a state Senate committee hearing this past spring, the Academy of Family Medicine estimated up to an additional 154,037 deaths of despair from drugs, alcohol and suicide attributed to the rise in unemployment, isolation and uncertainty resulting from the pandemic.

With cases spiking, the state ought to focus more on effectively enforcing the measures already in place. As the business community has repeatedly stressed to the administration, employers need the backing of law enforcement and state officials to effectively enforce the mandates that are designed to keep us safe – particularly mask wearing.

We understand these are trying times but the only way we will overcome these challenges is by working together. It is time the administration finally commit itself to engage, coordinate and communicate with the business community in order to strike a balance between protecting our public health and preserving our fragile economy.

Gene Barr is president and CEO of the PA Chamber of Business and Industry.

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