Business grinds to a halt in Philly and surrounding counties

Small business owners adapt as Philly mayor orders bars and restaurants to close, and Gov. Wolf expands his mandate statewide.

Mariel Freeman, the owner of Shot Tower coffee house, and her 9th month-old baby Gigi. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mariel Freeman, the owner of Shot Tower coffee house, and her 9th month-old baby Gigi. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mariel Freeman had wanted to shut down since Saturday. The co-owner of a Shot Tower Coffee in Bella Vista, she felt like it was the right thing to do from a public health standpoint — she wanted to take preventative measures and help “flatten the curve.” But Freeman didn’t want to pull the trigger without backing from Philadelphia officials.

“We would be more comfortable making the call if the city was making the call,” said Freeman, who also owns a yoga studio in the neighborhood. Freeman was worried that if she shut down before a city directive, it might affect her chances of qualifying for small business relief, or have any other form of recourse. “There was just so much confusion,” she said.

Now, Philadelphia has issued guidance — and some relief. All nonessential businesses had to  close as of 5 p.m. Monday through at least March 27. Pennsylvania’s governor extended a similar directive across the entire state starting Monday at midnight.

Businesses considered essential are supermarkets and grocery stores, big box stores, pharmacies, discount stores, daycares, hardware stores, gas stations, banks, post offices, laundromats and veterinary clinics and pet stores. Also deemed essential are stores selling frozen products, computer or cell phone equipment, personal hygiene products, medical equipment, soaps and detergents.

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Food establishments can only be open for pick-up and delivery. Dine-in service is restricted. The order will be enforced by the city health department, and license and inspections. Officials didn’t specify what the penalty would be for violators.

“This is a situation that has no playbook,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, who noted that he’d had initial conversations with restaurant industry leaders about pooling money to keep workers paid as long as possible.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said that if residents see a restaurant or bar where people are dining inside, they can report the violation to the Health Department by calling 215-685-7495.

State officials also say they are not planning to impose specific penalties on businesses that don’t close. Asked during a press conference whether he might use the National Guard to help keep people quarantined, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said no.

Freeman had already stopped putting out the seats at the coffee shop, and had moved her yoga classes online. She was relieved to hear the city had finally taken action, but was realistic about what that meant for her staff.

“If they’re not working, they’re not getting paid,” she said. “There needs to be money flowing in constantly to support the money that is constantly flowing out. There is not a surplus.”

Between the cafe and the yoga studio,Freeman said she has about six baristas and two managers whose healthcare she wants to continue paying for as long as she can. On top of that, she pays at least ten yoga teachers as independent contractors, at least some of whom make their living teaching yoga full time, or combined with service industry jobs. She’s hoping the online yoga classes will be popular, and people will still pay to register to be able to sustain the teachers’ income.

The rest of her staff will be laid off.

“When the dust settles, everyone has a job to come back to,” she said, adding that she still planned to have weekly video calls with her staff, and offer them any support they might need.

Freeman said she planned to use her newfound free time to slow down, and try to nap alongside her 9-month old baby.

Amid the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Shot Tower coffee house in South Philadelphia is closed. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philly offers support for small businesses

Philadelphia reported one new case of coronavirus Monday, bringing the total to nine.

The city lagged behind its neighboring counties in shutting down bars and restaurants, which Wolf had issued guidance on Saturday, and mandated late Sunday. City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Philly took longer because, as the poorest big city in America, it has unique challenges not shared by the collar counties in ensuring that low-wage workers have options if they suddenly lose work.

“At this point, I feel comfortable that those safety nets are in place, or will be in place very shortly,” he said.

The city will offer a mix of new grants and zero-interest loans for Philadelphia businesses that make under $5 million in annual revenue, with more details on how to apply to come.

In the meantime, Abernathy encouraged any workers who would be laid off as a result of the shutdowns to apply for unemployment right away, and that the city is working with state officials to streamline unemployment, SNAP and TANF benefits.

After declaring a state of emergency, Pennsylvania was able to expand the definition of who can qualify for unemployment benefits or workers compensation to include anyone who has lost work to be quarantined, laid off or had their hours cut due to coronavirus.

The city commerce department is compiling a list of state and federal relief options that may be available for businesses of all sizes. The department is also circulating a survey for businesses owners to help the city understand their needs better.

‘I don’t think anybody’s ready for this’

Some business owners in the commonwealth have had a little longer to get used to the idea of an extended lockdown. Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware and Chester Counties have been under orders to close all nonessential businesses since Sunday.

For the last 25 years, Marcy Schindler and her husband have run Moish and Itzy’s, a Jewish deli, restaurant and caterer in Langhorne, Bucks County.

Schindler said even before she got word they’d have to limit the restaurant to delivery and takeout orders, they figured it was an option and were trying to figure out ways to keep paying their employees.

But, she added, profit margins for restaurants are thin — even in the best of times.

“I don’t think anybody’s ready for this as much as we tried to be ready for it,” she said. “I think this is hitting really hard. I think people are afraid for their livelihoods.”

Schindler estimates business was down 50 or 60% this weekend, and she only needed a fraction of her usual staff.

She said now, they’re letting staff decide whether they want to self-quarantine, or keep picking up shifts.

“We’re trying to figure out ways for everybody to keep working,” she said. Now that dining rooms are closed, she said, they’re “trying to figure out, what can they do instead?”

There are some silver linings, Schindler said. Starting over the weekend, Moish and Itzy’s has been getting phone calls from regular customers asking for servers’ venmo addresses, so they can send them tips from afar.

“We’re a family,” she said.

Mariel Freeman, the owner of Shot Tower coffee house, her husband Matthew Derago and her 9th month-old baby Gigi. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Confusion in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, there was confusion about the mayor’s announcement in the hours that followed it. The concierge at the Fashion District in Center City, Kim, who only gave her first name because she’s not authorized to speak on behalf of her employer, said she wasn’t sure if they’d be shutting down at 5.

“We haven’t heard from a higher up that we’re closing,” she said. The concierges are contracted through the Independence Visitors Center, which had already closed for deep cleaning.

“There’s still people shopping, that’s what amazes me,” Kim said, gesturing at the sparsely populated mall.

Kim said she’d be given extra sick time in preparation for such an announcement, and was expected to use that, plus any remaining paid time off while the mall remained closed.

In Philadelphia, all businesses with more than 10 employees must offer paid sick leave. Those with fewer than 10 must also offer sick leave, but it can be unpaid. Pennsylvania does not require employers to offer sick leave.

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At Dom’s Shoe Repair in Center City, an employee who did not give her name because she was not authorized to speak on behalf of the store said the shop had been unusually busy just that morning. She guessed it might have been because people have more time on their hands to check off boxes on their to-do list, like going to the cobbler.

“They actually left shoes to pick up during the week and next week,” she said. “I don’t think they were thinking we were going to close down.”

On top of Philadelphia businesses shutting down, most city departments will, too. Beginning March 18, all non essential city workers will not need to report to work. Sanitation services will continue as usual, as will utilities.

Health and human services workers are considered essential. At this time, Abernathy said there would be no change to Philadelphia police patrol schedules or staffing numbers.

Among the list of city operations that will come to a halt are the courts. President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas Idee Fox requested that the state supreme court declare a judicial emergency, and it was granted Monday. That means jury and non-jury, criminal and civil, as well as preliminary hearings are suspended and will be rescheduled. Jurors do not need to report for jury duty, and all civil, pretrial conferences, case management conferences, diversion programs, discovery lists and trials are canceled or postponed. The same is true for criminal trials.

Sheriff sales and evictions had already been suspended.

Juvenile detention and shelter hearings and emergency protection from abuse orders, (also known as restraining orders), are considered essential and will continue.

Fox said that anyone scheduled for a canceled service would be notified.

Attorney Rania Major welcomes that news — and, like Freeman, wished it had come sooner. A private attorney with a small staff that represents many low-income clients in criminal and civil cases, she had already prepared letters to judges and opposing counsel for each of her cases,, requesting extensions.

“I don’t want someone with diabetes and heart issues and whatever else having to feel like they have to choose between going to court to be there for their loved one, or staying at home for their health,” she said.

“I know it’s going to be a nightmare rescheduling all these matters, but in the interest of public safety and public health, it needs to be done and it needs to be done now.”

WHYY’s Katie Meyer contributed reporting.

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