UPDATED: Wolf orders 1000s of ‘non-life-sustaining’ businesses to close

By Marc Levy, Michael Rubinkam and Mark Scolforo Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf issued a sweeping shutdown order to tens of thousands of “non-life-sustaining” businesses Thursday, decreeing they must close their physical locations by 8 p.m. to slow the spread of the coronavirus or face enforcement by state police and other government agencies.

Citing his authority under the state’s disaster declaration law, Wolf ordered more than 150 types of businesses to close their physical locations, warning that enforcement against violators would begin Saturday. It was among the harshest measures yet taken by a U.S. governor in response to the virus pandemic.

“I had hoped for voluntary compliance so our public safety officials could focus on assisting with the crisis,” Wolf said in a video statement. “Unfortunately we have not seen full compliance. We have no time to lose.”

A list of life-sustaining business categories can be found here.

Enforcement provisions

Wolf said his order would be enforced by state troopers, local officials, the state Health and Agriculture departments and the Liquor Control Board. The two-term Democratic governor had previously said he would not use police for enforcement.

Businesses that fail to comply risk citations, fines or license suspensions, and “forfeit their ability to receive any applicable disaster relief and/or may be subject to other appropriate administrative action,” Wolf’s office said in a statement.

Criminal prosecution is also a possibility, with violators subject to fines or imprisonment, Wolf’s office said.

Enforcement actions against businesses that do not close physical locations will begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

Law enforcement will use discretion as they enforce the governor’s order, Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said in a separate email, citing a “range of potential actions,” including notifying people about the closure order, warnings, citations and what she termed “mandatory closure.”

Businesses permitted to remain open must practice social distancing and other measures to protect workers and patrons from contracting the virus, the governor’s office said.

Who’s open, closed

Among those allowed to stay open are gas stations, grocery stores, beer distributors, drugstores and building materials stores. Restaurants and bars can continue to offer carry-out, delivery and drive-thru food and drink service, but not dine-in service.

Newspapers, radio and television stations are among those businesses allowed to continue operating.

Hospitals, doctor’s offices and dental offices are permitted to remain open, but the order prohibits elective health procedures as officials work to help hospitals create more capacity in anticipation of a surge in coronavirus patients.

Businesses under shutdown orders range from coal mines to building contractors to many types of manufacturers, plus professional offices including law firms and accounting offices.

Retailers ordered to close include car dealers, clothing stores, furniture stores, florists, office supply stores and lawn and garden stores.

Business leaders react

Gene Barr, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, predicted Wolf’s order — unprecedented in its scope — would cause alarm in the business community, but he acknowledged “this is a place where there’s no easy answers.”

“He is faced with a tough decision, doing something that we all know is going to have significant economic damage, balanced against the need to save lives,” Barr said.

The chamber will review the state’s list of businesses deemed nonessential and potentially work to get some reopened, Barr said, but will not challenge Wolf’s overall authority to mandate the closures.

“We’re going to do it. The governor said this is what you’re going to do, we’re going to do it, we’re going to comply,” Barr said.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the order was initially very ambiguous, causing panic over whether hotels would have to shutdown and put guests out within hours. But the industry received assurances from the Wolf administration that lodging facilities are exempt.

“It would have meant thousands of guests put out on the street, without anywhere go to,” Longstreet said. “We’ve got this resolved now.”

The National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business advocacy group with 13,000 members in Pennsylvania, demanded to know the medical basis of the shutdown order, predicting it would cause personal and financial devastation. The group also said Wolf should have given companies more lead time to secure equipment and notify workers.

“We understand that there are necessary precautions that must be taken to protect life, but no other governor, even in states with many more cases and wider community spread, has taken this extreme action,” said Gordon Denlinger, NFIB state director in Pennsylvania.

Yudichak: Listen to experts

State Sen. John Yudichak, I-Swoyersville, said he is supportive of Wolf during what he termed Are “extremely challenging times.” He said the COVID-19 crisis is a national health emergency like never before seen.

“This has caused an extreme economic hardship,” Yudichak said. “But we must allow the experts to guide us. We will get through this together.”

Yudichak said Pennsylvania and the country will face a major rebuilding period when then crisis eventually subsides.

This has been a major disruption not only to Wall Street, but to Main Street as well,” he said. “And there is a lot of concern about everyone’s health. Social distancing will save lives.”

Yudichak also said media play a vital role during the crisis, keeping the public informed.

“It’s absolutely critical that the media get the latest and most accurate information to the public on a continuing basis,” Yudichak said. “We have to see unprecedented collaboration and cooperation at every level. We have to be all in for Pennsylvania and for the country.”

Times Leader reporter Bill O’Boyle and News Editor Roger DuPuis contributed to this report.