If the slowdown of new COVID-19 cases continues across the region, Bedford, Clearfield and Cambria counties will deserve a shift to the more business-friendly “green” phase in June, state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. said.
But during an online town hall with nearly 50 frustrated business owners from across his district, the Richland Township lawmaker said it’s still not certain what that phase will mean for many communities, an issue that keeps late summer festivals and events such as weddings in limbo.
“I think June 4 is a hard, fast date that’s creeping up because that’s when Governor Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration expires – and it’ll be three weeks in the (less restrictive) yellow phase for most counties,” Langerholc said.
“I think if the numbers are still declining by then, we should see counties start going green.”
Under Wolf’s phased reopening approach, all businesses would be able to resume doing business under the Department of Health’s “green” level, while following state and federal health guidelines.
State health officials have offered few details into their expectations for reaching that level, although they have acknowledged some may start moving to that level could start moving in that direction – perhaps in the coming week – before other counties leave the stay-at-home red phase.
“We don’t know what the plan for going into green is – or the benchmarks. I wish I knew,” Langerholc said, after one attendee asked about public gathering limits. “They aren’t telling us anything.”
Wolf, in a press conference held hours after Langerholc’s town hall event Thursday, indicated more information will be coming “soon” – adding only that the Health Department is relying on a range of data to determine, including models from Carnegie Mellon and Washington universities, among others as well as the PolicyLab from Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania to determine how fast they’ll proceed.
In an informal Zoom web conference, Langerholc spent nearly 40 minutes chatting with chambers of commerce leaders from Greater Johnstown, Bedford and Clearfield – and the businesses they serve across the 35th District.
He fielded questions about concerns that some businesses might not survive continued shutdowns, the status of efforts to override Wolf’s recent vetoes and issues with “small business interruption” insurance claims, among others.
House and Senate Republicans tried passing legislation that would have created a path to allow shuttered businesses – barber shops included – to reopen.
Like Langerholc, state Reps. Frank Burns (D-East Taylor Township) and Jim Rigby (R-Ferndale) both supported the measure, but it failed to obtain the two-thirds majority needed statewide.
Another bill would have gave counties the power to set guidelines on what could reopen, when and how – but the house was nearly split on it at 104-98.
The bills might not be necessary if lawmakers were getting more guidance from Wolf’s administration, Langerholc added.
“It’s been frustrating at times,” Langerholc said, adding that he hopes both sides of the aisle can find common ground.
“We’re trying to work together to get businesses open again.”
Economic blows, override efforts
Cambria Regional Chamber President Amy Bradley said she’s heard from a steady stream of salon owners who are worried about their business’ fates.
Thanks to uncertainties about future limits on crowd gatherings – now limited to 25 and “unclear” for the green phase – county fair and event organizers for draws such as Bedford’s Fall Foliage Festival aren’t sure how to proceed either, Bedford County Chamber President Kellie Goodman-Shaffer said.
“Those are huge economic events for our areas,” she said.
Johnstown-based Top Dog Productions’ Dustin Greene said his phone line has been buzzing from brides-to-be who want answers, too.
And at this point, Greene doesn’t have many.
“At this point, all I can tell them is ... if you’re marrying the love of your life, it can wait a year,” Greene added.
Langerholc said it’s “unfortunate” that the entire state has had to wait on Wolf for answers.
And it’s even more frustrating for small business owners who are barely working or still closed while newspaper headlines show “big box chains like Walmart” raking in record online sales.
“That’s not good news to our chamber members when so many of you are hurting, suffering and eager to open up,” he said.
Langerholc noted efforts have been underway at the Capitol to move legislation forward that could rescind Wolf’s disaster declaration, if needed.
But that will likely take time to move through the chambers and the move must be handled the right way because the declaration also enables the state to turn to the federal government for reimbursement for its statewide disaster response expenses, he said.