HARRISBURG – During a workshop discussion today, state and local experts in industry and health care highlighted the ability of western Pennsylvania to reopen safely as the rate of new cases of COVID-19 continues to decline across the state.
The workshop was held by the Senate Majority Policy Committee, chaired by Senator David G. Argall (R-29), at the request of Senator Camera Bartolotta (R-46).
“My district sits in the arms of West Virginia, which has been welcoming arms for all of our business while we remain closed,” Bartolotta said. “The message today is we do have a plan. We have had a plan from the beginning of this. The plan was to listen to the experts, to follow the science, to consider the medical data, and look at those other states that have been successful in their mitigation of COVID-19 without crushing their entire economy and putting people in poverty.”
“We have flattened the curve, and now we have to flatten the fear,” she added.
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Chief (UPMC) Medical Officer Dr. Steven Shapiro testified that there has been no surge of cases in western Pennsylvania. He added that UPMC has screened more than 5,000 asymptomatic patients for the virus and have only seen a rate of approximately two positive tests per 1,000 patients.
He said that protecting older Pennsylvanians and other vulnerable populations is a key to opening safely.
“This is the disease of preexisting conditions. We can manage society in the presence of the pathogen if we manage people with those conditions,” Shapiro said. “Now is exactly the time that we can carefully and cautiously return to the new normal if we protect our vulnerable populations.”
Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association President and CEO John Longstreet said that a recent survey found that 96 percent of restaurants laid off employees during the pandemic, and restaurants lost $1.8 billion in sales in April – an 82-percent decline. An estimated 30 percent of restaurants are not expected to reopen. In addition, 110,000 jobs have been lost in the hotel industry – about nine times worse than the drop-off following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President and CEO Gene Barr and Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association President and CEO David Taylor both suggested that lawmakers offer protection to assist businesses that operate safely and responsibly during the public health emergency.
Taylor pointed out that a prolonged shutdown continues to put Pennsylvania employers at a severe competitive disadvantage compared to other states, many of whom never shut down manufacturing at all.
“Because the shutdown in Pennsylvania is broader and has lasted longer, we are in worse shape compared to our competitors,” Taylor said. “Anything that can be opened safely should be opened safely now. Not in a week. Not in two weeks. Not in a month. Now.”
Barr said that 92 percent of business reported a moderate or high impact from this crisis in a recent survey.
“We have taken our economy to extraordinary depths, and we need extraordinary measures to bring it back,” Barr said. “Many jobs have been lost to our competitors, and many of those jobs are not coming back.”
Cindy Levi of Geno Levi Salon detailed the steps her business is taking to open safely, including training staff on new policies, conducting temperature checks and wellness surveys for customers and employees, closing reception areas, using disposable equipment, extending hours, splitting shifts, and expanding into a second facility to maintain social distancing.
Michael Passalacqua of Angelo’s Restaurant also highlighted the steps his business has implemented, including spending several thousand dollars on deep cleaning and disinfection for the entire facility, separating tables and setting up an outdoor tent to boost occupancy. He expressed doubt that the restaurant industry would be able to adapt to limited occupancy requirements in the future.
“At 50 percent occupancy, you can’t break even, let alone make a profit,” Passalacqua said. “It is going to take me two or three years to get back into the black. Many of my colleagues won’t recover at all.”
Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators Executive Director Aaron Shenck highlighted safety plans that career and technical schools have developed based on federal, state and local health guidance, including temperature checks, spreading out seating, implementing rotational schedules, use of PPE, disinfecting and cleaning procedures and installation of plexiglass barriers.
Schenck pointed out that similar health and safety plans were submitted to state officials in Maryland and were approved to continue operating within four days, while Pennsylvania Department of Health officials have continued to mandate the closure of all education facilities for more than two months.
The Meadows Racetrack and Casino General Manager Anthony Frabbiele said his organization is partnering with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to establish and implement best practices to protect employees and patrons. Christy Pantaleano from the Pennsylvania Horseman’s Association pointed out that their operations were deemed essential and have remained open in a limited capacity with no positive cases of the virus for more than two months.
Greene County Historical Society Executive Director Matt Cumberledge said his facility could be open for general admission following health guidelines with the capped number of 25 visitors, and they probably wouldn’t even run into each other.
Video of the entire hearing will be available online at https://www.pasenategop.com.
CONTACT: Joshua J. Paul