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Confusion ensues after Wolf orders some businesses to close

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania speaks at a new conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters where he said he was ordering schools and other facilities to close in a suburban Philadelphia county, Montgomery County, that has been hard-hit by the COVID-19, Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

Gov. Tom Wolf did not order all "nonessential" businesses to close in an address Monday, administration officials said, despite concerns expressed by lawmakers who believed he was unilaterally shuttering the state.

Some lawmakers promptly criticized Wolf following Monday's media conference where he did order the closure of bars and restaurants, except for takeout and delivery service.

Hours later, Wolf's administration issued a news release that "strongly urged" other nonessential business — such as theaters, salons and concert venues — to consider closing amid concerns of the spread of the coronavirus.

“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,” Wolf spokesman Lyndsay Kensinger said Tuesday.

More:UPDATED: The latest closings and cancellations in York County

More:Wolf declares state of emergency, shuttering all 'nonessential' businesses across state

Even after the evening news release from the Wolf administration, some Republicans claimed that it wouldn't be in the governor's purview to completely close businesses across the state anyway.

“As it stands now, the governor does not have the authority to shutter all business in the Commonwealth," said state Sen. Dave Arnold, R-Lebanon. 

State Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said he was under the impression that the governor could order bars and restaurants to close because they were regulated by the state. 

Many other types of businesses deemed "nonessential" are not directly regulated or licensed by the state. 

The Wolf administration, however, said no such limitations exist.

Technically, Wolf does have the authority to close every business deemed "nonessential" in the state as a part of the vast powers granted by the state's emergency management law, Kensinger said.

Wolf opted to use that power solely to shut down bars and restaurants because of how many people gather within those spaces.

On Friday, Wolf ordered the closure of public schools statewide, which flummoxed school district leaders in York County.

School district officials have said they are not clear about whether teachers are allowed to provide any instruction, such as remote cyber learning, during the statewide shutdown caused by COVID-19.

But on Tuesday, state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said in a news release that Wolf's order shuttering public schools should not bar students from receiving online instruction. 

“Protecting the health and safety of our children is paramount, just as it is for ALL Pennsylvanians, but that should not mean the state abdicates its responsibility of providing an education during this crisis," Turzai said.

There does, however, seem to be a consensus that temporary measures are necessary to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

The state on Tuesday announced there are 96 confirmed cases, none of them in York County.

“I think the General Assembly and the governor have been communicating very well,” Saylor said, echoing the importance of social distancing and avoiding large groups. “It’s kind of nice to see all the bipartisanship.”

The Republican still has reservations over the broadness of the nonessential designation for businesses. But state lawmakers are focusing on getting feedback from the businesses and coordinating the distribution of federal aid, Saylor said.

The White House has pitched an $850 billion stimulus package that would include direct payment to Americans and an interest-free deferment of tax payments, The New York Times reported.

It is still clear, though, that there is fear Wolf's declaration has the potential to hamstring business profits and cause layoffs and bankruptcies across the state. 

"I do think there’s certainly worst-case scenarios if this evolves and has an economic ripple effect that’s very difficult to even measure right now," said Kevin Schreiber, president of the York County Economic Alliance.

The YCEA has created its own website to advertise aid for small businesses and nonprofits, including the U.S. Small Business Administration offering up to $2 million in aid from the Disaster Assistance Loan funds.

The state Department of Labor & Industry has urged those who have lost work to apply for unemployment and workers' compensation benefits.

Bars and restaurants panicked after organizers canceled the York St. Patrick’s Day Parade last week, fearing their profits would be throttled. And owners didn't expect that to be the end of troubles stemming from COVID-19.

Left Bank Restaurant & Bar in York City, for example, closed its doors for 12 to 24 weeks.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.