UPDATE: This story will not be updated after March 19. Get the latest information here.
HARRISBURG — On March 16, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown, urging nonessential businesses to close for two weeks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania.
The governor also ordered restaurants and bars to close their dine-in facilities and to limit service to carry-out or delivery.
But Wolf’s move has caused confusion among business owners and the wider public about what is considered a nonessential business, and whether his shutdown is voluntary or mandatory.
Here’s what we know as of 6 p.m. March 18 (this story will be updated):
Q: What is an essential business?
A: The state has not provided a comprehensive list, but did release the following guidance on “essential services and sectors”:
- Food processing
- Industrial manufacturing
- Feed mills
- Trash collection
- Grocery and household goods (including convenience stores)
- Home repair/hardware and auto repair
- Pharmacy and other medical facilities
- Biomedical and healthcare
- Post offices and shipping outlets
- Gas stations
- Veterinary clinics and pet stores
- Warehousing, storage, and distribution
- Public transportation
- Hotel and commercial lodging
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Q: What is a nonessential business?
A: The state has again provided guidance, rather than a comprehensive list. “Public-facing” businesses are urged to close for two weeks. Any business owner with questions is asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
These businesses include:
- Entertainment facilities
- Hospitality facilities
- Recreation facilities, like community centers
- Gyms, including yoga, barre, and spin studios
- Hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, and spas
- Concert venues
- Sporting event venues, including golf courses
- Retail facilities, like shopping malls; retail shops with pharmacies or other health care facilities can continue to operate
Q: Are nonessential businesses required to close?
A: This is the primary source of confusion.
The administration said in a news release on March 17 that it “is relying on businesses to act now before the governor or the Secretary of Health finds it necessary to compel closures under the law for the interest of public health.”
Wolf’s advisers say he’s empowered to do so.
“The administration supports local law enforcement, permitting entities, and local officials to enforce if needed,” the state said on March 16. “The governor does not want to expend valuable resources from the state police and PA National Guard because irresponsible people choose not to do the right thing.”
Republican leaders in the state House put out their own message.
They said in a statement that although they agree large groups should not gather, “if you, or a business owner you know, wish to remain in business, it is their right to do so.”
When asked if the GOP leaders’ message was correct, Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said “no.”
“[State House leadership] should encourage all of their constituents to follow the guidance by the Wolf Administration and the federal government to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Kensinger said.
Q: What about restaurants and bars?
A: Wolf has “temporarily prohibited” restaurants and bars from serving patrons sit-down meals, but they can continue to offer takeout, drive-through, or delivery options.
On March 18, the administration said it would begin cracking down on restaurants and bars that continue to offer dine-in services. The Liquor Control Board said it is mandating all on-premises consumption of food and alcohol stop and the State Police will cite and suspend violators.
“Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, and this decision is not made lightly,” control board chairman Tim Holden said. “But saving lives and protecting the health and safety of our communities is our highest priority right now.”
John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said he trusts public health officials and said he is focused on making sure small businesses survive the pandemic.
“We are focused on recovery and making sure employees have access to benefits, restaurants have cash flow to reopen, and that they survive this economic break,” he said, later adding: “The vast majority of people I‘ve talked to are glad the government is doing its job.”
Q: What about schools?
On March 13, Wolf ordered all K-12 schools statewide to close. Still, some private and higher-education institutions continued to operate, requiring students to report to class if they did not have flu-like symptoms.
As of March 17, however, Eric Levis, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said private schools and colleges “are affected” by the statewide shutdown request. More details are available on the department’s website.
Q: What about child care providers?
A: Child care facilities statewide have been shuttered.
But facilities that serve the children of essential employees like health care workers and first responders can submit a waiver through the Department of Human Services’ Office of Child Development and Early Learning by emailing RA-PWDRACERT@pa.gov.
Communities can also implement programs for school-age children to support families that have to work. These “part-day school-age programs” do not need to be licensed to operate, but they must comply with background check requirements.
Additional guidance can be found on the department’s website.
Q: What about everything else?
- All casinos are closed.
- All driver’s license and photo centers are closed. The Department of Transportation has extended the validity of expiring driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations, and inspections until the end of April.
- State-run liquor stores will close indefinitely at 9 p.m. March 17, although consumers can still purchase wine and beer at grocery stores that carry them, according to officials at the Liquor Control Board.
- All facilities at state parks and forests are closed for 14 days starting March 17. Trails, lakes, forests, roads, and parking areas will remain open to the public.
- Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is under a statewide judicial emergency until April 14, 2020, during which county president judges can, among other changes, restrict or temporarily close court facilities and authorize using technology to conduct court proceedings.
- The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has stopped accepting cash or credit cards as payment at tollbooths to keep drivers moving. Payments will be assessed through E-ZPass or the “toll by plate” program.
- All 17 service plazas along the Turnpike will be partially closed, meaning there will be no fast food or inside dining available. Indoor restrooms will also be closed, but portable toilets are still an option. Gas stations and convenience stores will still operate.
- The state’s Department of Corrections is not allowing visitors and is screening all staff, vendors, contractors, and incarcerated persons for COVID-19 symptoms.
- No visitors are allowed inside senior care or long-term care facilities.
- All County Assistance Offices are closed until at least April 1.
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