Inside the tug-of-war over Pennsylvania’s strict business closure list

Pennsylvania has closed businesses more aggressively than many nearby states. Democrats mostly agree with the approach, Republicans don’t.

Curtis Alexander, owner of South Philadelphia plant nursery Urban Jungle, said despite having a waiver to operate through the pandemic, the store is doing about 10% of their usual business. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Curtis Alexander, owner of South Philadelphia plant nursery Urban Jungle, said despite having a waiver to operate through the pandemic, the store is doing about 10% of their usual business. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Curtis Alexander estimates that since coronavirus lockdowns began, he has lost around 90 percent of the business at his South Philadelphia garden store.

“This is our busy season, the spring,” he said.

Garden stores — even ones that sell food-producing plants — aren’t considered essential businesses in Pennsylvania and have been ordered to close. It is a point of contention in the industry — the Pennsylvania Nursery and Garden Association, for instance, is petitioning Gov. Tom Wolf to issue a blanket waiver letting the businesses continue operating.

Garden stores are the latest kinds of businesses that Republican state lawmakers have latched on to in hopes of pressuring the Wolf administration to let them reopen. They have drafted legislation that would reclassify garden centers as essential, as they are in some neighboring states.

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Alexander’s store, Urban Jungle, actually received a waiver from the state that allowed it to keep operating. But he said it hasn’t really been the boon for his business that some GOP lawmakers seem to think it might be.

Most of the staff at Urban Jungle are furloughed right now. Alexander and his wife have been the only people working in the store regularly, and even then, mostly on the weekends, when they arrange curbside pickups with customers.

“I’m not going to endanger people — clients, employees, myself,” Alexander said. “I’m going to try to weather the storm. I may go bankrupt, I don’t know. I’m hanging in there right now.”

Curtis Alexander (right), owner of Urban Jungle with his wife Tara, at their nursery in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Business closures have varied widely by state. And though garden centers are the latest topic of debate in Harrisburg, they’re not the only category of closures that Republicans who control Pennsylvania’s House and Senate are criticizing.

Broadly, they want the list of businesses deemed essential and non-essential to hew more closely to a set of federal guidelines that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released in late March.

Some of the states that border Pennsylvania, like Maryland and Ohio, have appeared to rely more heavily on that guidance than Pennsylvania did. Ohio, for instance, based its definition of essential businesses on “all the workers identified in [the CISA memo] or any updated versions of [that memo].”

“It’s so important to have a plan and to have standards,” House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler said. “Because if the standards and the plan are clear, then there’s no confusion, there’s no need for a waiver process, and those who can safely operate can do so.”

Cutler noted he wants to see the state re-open businesses on a much broader scale that would allow business owners themselves to decide whether it is safe to operate. He’s also hoping to see counties with low COVID-19 numbers able to open businesses more broadly.

However, he added, “if we have to take it sector by sector we will.”

Many of Republicans’ complaints about the business closures haven’t just been about the number of businesses that are closed, but on what they perceive to be the Wolf administration’s difficulty explaining those closures.

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Dennis Davin, Secretary for the State Department of Community and Economic Development, which came up with the closure plan, noted that “it’s something that none of us had any real experience with, because it’s such a crazy situation with what happened and how quickly everything happened.”

He said the administration’s initial list came from a review of the North American Industry Classification System and federal CISA guidance, and it has been working to adjust it since then, based on information from counties, chambers of commerce, politicians and individual businesses.

Along with garden centers, areas of particular frustration for Pennsylvania Republicans have been construction and car sales.

In the initial roll-out of the commonwealth’s closure orders March 19th, the Wolf administration ordered all construction to halt, aside from emergency repairs or healthcare-related building.

It was a more extreme step than those taken by other nearby states. Construction has continued more or less as usual in Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio. New York shut down construction it deemed non-essential later, on March 27, and New Jersey waited until April 10 to take a similar step.

The commonwealth was similarly more restrictive when it came to car sales. Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland have all been allowing at least some form of remote or online means of purchasing a car since they put business closure orders in place.

Pennsylvania wasn’t. Davin said that was because state law required a notary to be physically present at the sale of a car, and DCED decided, in the early days of its deliberations over business closures, that wouldn’t be safe.

Online sales will soon be available, however. Wolf signed a bill this week allowing online notarization, and Davin said he expects car dealers will be up and running soon. He noted, similar changes are in the offing for construction. As part of an announcement Wednesday night detailing his plan to gradually reopen Pennsylvania’s economy, Wolf said he will allow construction to resume statewide on May 1.

Cutler and other House Republicans welcomed the specifics, releasing a statement thanking Wolf for having “pulled back the curtain and provided direct and measurable guidelines his administration will follow to allow Pennsylvanians to safely return to work and provide for their families.”

Davin said overall, the administration stands by its decision to diverge from the CISA list.

“It’s guidance,” he said. “If you see some of the things that happened in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey…every state really had to do what they thought was best. And the governor and [Health Secretary Rachel Levine] thought it was best to have the closures happen when they did in order to get ahead of this as much as possible to really bend that curve.”

Alexander, from Urban Jungle, noted that since he is technically still allowed to operate but is still losing money, his priority right now is finding state or federal aid for his business.

“I think the [federal Paycheck Protection Program] might provide some funding,” he said. “I’m in line, I’m approved to get the money, but they ran out of money before I was able to get the paperwork.”

And even garden center owners who haven’t been allowed to operate seem to be thinking along those lines.

Sue White is one of the owners at City Planter, another Philadelphia plant and garden store. Unlike Alexander, her in-store operation is shut down completely, though she noted she has been able to adapt relatively quickly to fulfilling online orders.

White said even if she does get the go-ahead to reopen and sell food plants, she doesn’t really feel comfortable letting customers back in the store.

“We’ve been discussing what’s going to happen if they open up the restrictions…we think we would probably stay closed,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that makes my employees feel unsafe.”

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