The COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on and as Congress debates new funding options at the federal level, many local leaders would rather reopen businesses than accept more federal funding. But reopening the economy may not be as simple as either of those options.
Getting back to work has proven difficult for many, especially those in the food and drink industry or small businesses that rely on sporting events such as the Little League World Series for most of their annual revenue.
Local nightlife hotspots that market primarily to an imbibing audience have closed their doors for the second time after being restricted from selling solely alcohol to customers. Restaurants and coffee shops across the state were shocked on July 15 to find out that they were restricted to 25% capacity and could only serve alcohol with a meal.
Hoteliers continue to see a lower percentage of guests, especially as the region prepares for the increased economic impact after events like the Little League World Series and Drum and Bugle Corps have been cancelled.
Critics have said this statewide restriction does not consider the different level of cases each county faces, or the method the virus is brought in, but some local leaders urge policy makers to remember the pandemic is a public health crisis.
U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, of the 12th Congressional District, takes an even more conservative perspective than many of his GOP counterparts.
“I think it’s premature to start shoveling money out the door at this point,” Keller said, adding that he would prefer businesses be given guidance, but allowed to fully reopen.
As Congress debates between the GOP $1 trillion package or the $3 trillion Democrat package, Keller says committing any additional funds is premature as there is still $1.3 billion in CARES Act funds that Pennsylvania has yet to spend.
Calling for a straight reopen of the Lycoming County economy is not a simple task, according to Jason Fink, president/CEO of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce. Many local employers rely on the global economy to run their business, according to Fink. Without imports from China, or other regions, many businesses would still be unable to operate at full capacity.
Other local businesses who specialize in sports equipment, or event planning have seen a drastic decline in sales as many sporting events were cancelled. Even if the state were to reopen completely, many of these events would still be cancelled.
The Lycoming County region is expected to be impacted by over $40 million in economic losses due to the cancelling of the Little League World Series and the Drum and Bugle Corps, which are held at the end of August and beginning of September respectively.
Fink added that while some businesses have found a way to continue to make a profit during the pandemic, many others continue to struggle.
“A lot of them are small, family-owned restaurant-type businesses,” Fink said. “Those are not easily saved.”
While federal CARES Act funds have been used to help lessen the impact in the region, government funds can only be used for so long, said Lycoming County Commissioner Scott Metzger.
“Government is not sustained to support the economy. The economy has to support itself,” Metzger said. “Business owners don’t want handouts … They want to be able to operate safely.”
Metzger added that business owners should be trusted to take care of their customers.
Taking a different stance, Commissioner Rick Mirabito cautioned against turning a public health crisis into a political battle.
“We have to accept that this is an outside force that’s come on us,” Mirabito said. “Government needs to do things that help solve the problem.”
He called for concrete solutions to issues faced by businesses, such as using CARES Act funds for advances in broadband so people can work from home and reducing regulations on the use of the funds.
Increasing the deadline to spend CARES Act funds is also key to ensuring they can be used for meaningful projects, such as broadband.
As negotiations for the new stimulus package are ongoing, it’s unclear when new funds will be available, Keller said.
The county’s $10.2 million in CARES Act funds for will be available for municipalities and businesses through the end of the year, according to Metzger, however the funds must be assigned to a non-budgeted project and the project must be completed by Dec. 31.