PITTSBURGH — Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday eased coronavirus restrictions in 24 counties, mainly in the northwest and north-central portions of the state. Those areas will move from “red” to “yellow” in Wolf’s plan, meaning businesses can open back up and gatherings must be limited to 24 people.
In western Pennsylvania, only five counties were included in this first wave:
“We’ve selected these counties in part because they have low per-capita case counts,” Wolf said during a news conference. “They must continue to abide by the underlying message of yellow: proceed with caution. The yellow phase recognizes that outbreaks of COVID-19 are still possible."
Crunching the numbers, the population of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties is more than the combined population of the 24 counties that are opening back up.
Allegheny County not reopening yet
The staff at Railyard Tap Room in Bridgevill was glued to the television Friday afternoon wondering if Allegheny County would soon begin to reopen.
“Highly, highly disappointed. We’ve got a lot of people that count on us for their livelihood that work here. That’s our biggest concern,” general manager Jeremy Robinson said.
Robinson said he was hoping for good news from Gov. Wolf with the diminishing numbers of coronavirus cases in the region.
“We do a lot of live music and sporting events too which is a big part of our business. It would be nice to have some way to plan and move forward, but it doesn’t look like we have that just yet,” he said.
Until that happens, Robinson said he will just keep pushing the restaurant’s takeout and delivery business. To stay afloat, continued support from the community was critical and Robinson said it’s kept them going.
“We’ve had a couple of our regular guests. One left a $400 tip and another left a $500 tip for our staff just to help them out,” he said.
Two years ago, the restaurant was under five feet of water during massive flooding. This is just the latest hurdle Robinson has battled.
“I was hopeful of a May 8th open. I’m optimistic about a May 15 if we continue the numbers in the direction that they’ve been in. I think the folks in southwestern PA have really taken to the medical experts and the advice they have given and I think that’s why our numbers have been much lower than other parts of the county and state,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said he believes southwestern Pennsylvania is next in line. He said small businesses just need to keep trying to get help from the resources that are out there.
Lawrence, Mercer counties reopening
Lawrence County was moved from the red to the yellow phase allowing retail businesses to reopen. It was hopeful news for Mercer County leaders to the north, too.
“The governor’s regional office in Pittsburgh has been in touch with us for the last 6-8 weeks. The consulted with us and asked for our opinion,” said Lawrence County commissioner Dan Vogler.
But it’s a different story for Butler County which borders those counties.
“We’ve already heard there are going to be businesses that aren’t going to be reopening. This can’t make it better. It’s disappointing for our residents who worked so hard to distance and our numbers have proven that,” said Butler County Commissioner Kevin Boozel.
Butler County hair, nail salons
“I have a business to run and mouths to feed,” Ziggy Murin said.
Murin and Melissa Agnew own Zigszen Hair Salon. Both Allegheny and Butler counties, where their salons are located, will not be allowed to reopen anytime soon.
“I’ve invested my life into this like Ziggy. This is our life,” Agnew said.
Just like Gov. Wolf and the Secretary of Health, they’ve been crunching the numbers for population and coronavirus cases. They think something is off.
“I’ve watched all the numbers daily and we’ve reached all the numbers where he told us to reach and we should be reopening,” Murin said.
He said Wolf’s latest announcement makes it seem like he doesn’t care about small business owners who’ve been denied loans to keep them afloat. The governor’s plan said customers and staff of hair and nail salons cannot effectively social distance.
Westmoreland County also left out of first wave
It wasn’t the news non-essential businesses in Westmoreland County wanted to hear. They have to stay closed as the governor announced 24 counties were set to reopen.
Being stuck in the red phase indefinitely means Live Salon owner Amanda Bossi will keep the doors closed for at least another two weeks.
“Today is my breaking point. At this point, you almost feel like you have to play taps for your business, live you’re just watching it go down the drain and have no control over it,” Bossi said.
Westmoreland County was just shy of having 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus Friday. County commissioner Sean Kertes said he was optimistic, but prepared to stay home.
“We were hoping small business owners of Westmoreland County could get back to work. That’s what we were really hoping for but unfortunately we’re in the red,” Kertes said.
Small business owners like Bossi are just hoping they can hang on.
“To work so hard for three years and something like this comes in and could have the potential of destroying my business and not knowing how the government can support me in this time is even more disheartening,” Bossi said.
Small businesses across southwestern Pa. anxious for next wave of reopenings
The co-owners of MET. Performance Lab in the South Side are taking the virtual route to survive. Getting access to resources for small businesses has been nearly impossible for them.
They both have medical conditions. It’s what inspired them to open this gym — to help others get healthy.
“We have the power to help people, and we are being grouped together with larger gyms. I think there needs to be a set of guidelines specifically tailored to businesses,” co-owner Adrian Banbalen said.
They believe they are ready to safely reopen.
“You would sign up for class ahead of time, you would come in through one door we pull, (we’d) scan your temperature (and) make sure you have a mask,” he said. “We have probably 30 gallons of disinfectant in here, spray bottles for every station, fresh towels … we are ready to go.”
Business owners in Westmoreland and Washington counties continue to wait as well.
With low COVID-19 numbers they are hoping to partially reopen safely and soon.
Infectious disease doctor and Johns Hopkins scholar, Dr. Amesh Adalja, said he is surprised Gov. Tom Wolf did not put southwestern Pennsylvania on the list to partially reopen May 8.
“It’s also something that we want to have a lot more transparency into how that decision was made and when population density became a factor – and why that wasn’t enunciated at the beginning,” he said.
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