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Gov. Wolf’s shutdown order sows widespread confusion and panic. Up to 3 million workers affected

Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown order is expected to impact as many as 3 million Pennsylvania jobs. It has sown widespread confusion and led to significant pushback from various business groups.

At 8:30 pm, the 300 block of Market St. in Phila. is deserted and a sign in the window of the Artist and Craftsman Supply alerts folks that they are closed until further notice on March 19, 2020.
At 8:30 pm, the 300 block of Market St. in Phila. is deserted and a sign in the window of the Artist and Craftsman Supply alerts folks that they are closed until further notice on March 19, 2020.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf’s order telling all non-“life-sustaining” business to shut physical locations would cover as many as 3 million Pennsylvania jobs, and has sown widespread confusion, triggering significant pushback from some businesses groups.

The expansive shutdown order is the most stringent state response yet to curtail commerce, a prominent small business group said, as the nation struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19. The order has spread panic among small and large businesses and led to confusion over who is allowed to continue operating and who isn’t even as various interest groups continued to lobby in Harrisburg to receive special exemptions.

“The edict that went forth was not very well explained,” said Tony Lazarak, who owns LZK Manufacturing, a precision machine shop in Shrewsbury, Pa., with customers in defense, health care, rescue equipment, and other fields.

Lazarek was relieved to learn late Friday afternoon that defense-industry suppliers are now allowed to stay open. “We weren’t sure if we were in violation or not, but our customers were just begging us to keep going,” he said.

The governor’s list of businesses that had to close covered vast segments of the state’s manufacturing sector that have no direct interface with the public and can’t work remotely. If fully enacted, the order would affect 3 million workers, according to an Inquirer analysis of federal employment data, though exemptions have reduced that number.

The order also swept in services that so far had been untouched by business curtailments, including the IRS Philadelphia campus, where thousands work. And, it made explicit that nail salons and beauty parlors had to close.

Based on the strong reaction to the order, including lawsuits, state officials released a revised list Friday afternoon that said coal mining, health-care construction, defense work, hotels, and a few other industries would not be covered by the order. They were also establishing a process for businesses to make the case that they are life-sustaining. And on Friday night, the state announced that it would delay enforcement from Saturday to Monday morning.

“If you feel we’re not right, by all means seek a waiver,” Wolf said during a news conference. The electronic waiver application is available on the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development website. Businesses can also call 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3255) and select option 1.

Laundromats made their case and were deemed essential while most construction projects across the region planned to shut down at midnight Friday, putting thousands of jobs on ice.

At the same time, health-care construction projects, including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s $1.5 billion patient pavilion, scheduled to open in 2021, will be allowed to continue.

Other businesses also found refuge in exempt categories.

At Kingsbury Inc., a Northeast Philadelphia manufacturer of industrial bearings, chief executive Mike Brawley was confident that the privately held company was exempt from closure. “We make bearings for turbine in power transmission,” he said, adding that Kingsbury also does a lot of work for Navy suppliers.

The company employs about 120 in Philadelphia, but fewer than half were in the building.

The Boeing plant in Ridley Township, one of the Philadelphia region’s largest industrial employers, remains open, spokesperson Andrew Africk said. The factory, which employs more than 4,500 workers, assembles military helicopters.

“The Department of Homeland Security has issued guidance that classifies the Defense Industrial Base, including companies like Boeing and our subcontractors and suppliers, as essential critical infrastructure for the United States,” Africk said.

Merck, which has major pharmaceutical operations in Montgomery County, is exempt from closing and said its supply chain will not be disrupted by Wolf’s order. “While supply and demand vary by product, we continue to have normal supply levels for most of our medicines and vaccines," a spokesperson said.

» READ MORE: Pandemic’s next victim could be Philly’s retail renaissance

Others moved quickly to comply with the governor’s order.

Macron Dynamics CEO Tony Cirone shut down his 30-employee Bristol Township manufacturing plant at 8 p.m. on Thursday, but it wasn’t as simple as locking the doors.

“You can’t just shut down a company without settling stuff,” Cirone said on Friday morning as he and executive vice president Craig Marshall turned off machinery to conserve electricity and blasted out emails to customers and vendors. The company supplies equipment to the U.S. Postal Service, high-volume bakeries, and warehouses.

» READ MORE: Post offices, banks, water: How the coronavirus is affecting essential services across the region

They were accepting their last UPS shipments on Friday and telling UPS drivers they won’t be there for a while. “I plan for a two-week shutdown,” Marshall said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that. But you look at the press, and two weeks looks like a reasonable period of time to knock this out.”

Macron developed an emergency action plan on Thursday afternoon and implemented it two hours later, they said.

“We understand the emergency aspect to the situation but we could have been given a longer time to plan,” Marshall said.

Some service businesses, such as Isdaner & Co. in Bala Cynwyd, were also complying with the order to shut down, but it’s not easy to work that way during tax season, said Mitchell Gerstein, a senior tax adviser at the firm.

“We continue to be reminded this is the new normal for the time being," Gerstein said. “Yesterday, I spent 15 minutes with a client, both husband and wife walking them through how to send securely their tax brokerage statements to me via their iPad.”

Joe Grande, who owns Communication Graphics Inc., a Blue Bell-based company that designs and manages printing projects for direct mail and customers in other industries, said he has had to hit pause because the printers he uses are covered by Wolf’s order.

It’s bad timing for the 26-employee company. “I probably have like a million dollars in billings that I would have to get done over the next three weeks, which we’re finishing up," he said. "So now all of a sudden, we’re put on hold.”

Confusion as to how to apply the order reached beyond the manufacturing sector, particularly to the hotel industry, which was included in Thursday’s list of places that had to close.

» READ MORE: IRS tax payment & filing deadline now July 15 due to coronavirus. If you’re owed money, file ASAP.

But in an email to members, the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association said it received clarification from the governor’s office that hotels are considered essential and do not need to close.

Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, said the order “caused a lot of panic in the hotels because they were concerned that they were going to have to ask their guests to leave on a few hours’ notice.”

Philadelphia officials said they are working with Wolf’s office to discuss businesses that Philadelphia had allowed to remain open before the governor’s broad shutdown, city managing director Brian Abernathy said.

For example, he said that the city is concerned about residents’ ability to get a new refrigerator if theirs breaks, or a cell phone.

“Those conversations have been very productive and we’re optimistic that we’ll find resolution,” Abernathy said.

Staff writers Bob Fernandez, Andy Maykuth, Joseph N. DiStefano, Laura McCrystal, and Catherine Dunn contributed to this article.