KENNETT SQUARE —The ongoing pandemic has caused popular restaurants such as Christopher’s in Malvern, The Barrel Wine Bar & Restaurant in Phoenixville and the downtown Starbucks in West Chester to permanently close.
Guy Ciarrocchi, Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry president and chief executive officer, fears more may follow unless pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Ciarrocchi said he hopes to see Chester County fully open for business in 2021. “I hope it happens,” he said. “It has to happen,” Ciarrocchi said, “because we are growing increasingly concerned that if we don’t, the impact on business, the impact on the economy and the impact on our quality of life — would be, for many people — irreparable.”
Even sectors of the economy that are stable, he said, and maybe even be thriving, will eventually become harmed by those that are at a standstill and sinking.
“If we can’t get things back open, there will be a ripple effect,” Ciarrocchi said. “While today it’s really the hospitality industry that has been brought to its knees, eventually that will spill into other areas. It will begin to impact our farmers, it will begin to impact the people in transportation, it will begin to impact our downtowns.”
Today marks 11 months of either total or partial shutdowns of businesses in Pennsylvania, coupled with a score of state-mandated restrictions.
Thousands of couples canceled or postponed their weddings last spring. On March 13, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-essential businesses to close within 24 hours.
Many businesses never reopened. Ciarrocchi said the exact number of businesses which closed forever in Pennsylvania remains unknown.
“We will know much more after tax filings, April 15; thus there will be a significant amount of new data in the summer,” Ciarrocchi said.
It remains unknown today just how many businesses here at home are permanently closed versus how many will stay shut and try to reduce costs, as low as possible, with high hopes to reopen later on in 2021, according to Ciarrocchi.
Ciarrocchi said he has spoken to hundreds of business owners in Chester County who tell him delays on a full reopen could be catastrophic, and that the solution lies in compassion and common sense.
"The best program to help a locked-down business: Let them reopen," Ciarrocchi said. "Why is this so hard to understand? Why are we creating new programs and agencies—wasting money and time—when common sense sits in front of us. The best way to help the owners of a closed diner is, unsurprisingly, to allow them to serve customers and invite back their employees.
"For those who work in businesses that clearly cannot yet fully reopen, the proper governmental response is to offer them extended unemployment benefits and to direct them both to job openings and to the many job-training programs that are already in place and funded—programs that could provide workers with useful skills-training in fields like cybersecurity and medical care. In other words, offer them assistance and a path forward."
Elsewhere, less dinner or lunches continue to be served. And last year, less food, locally grown, was being sold. And as long as the shutdown continues, that trend does too.
Last spring and summer, many floral nurseries never opened to sell flowers during their peak operational seasons. Such locally owned small businesses didn't sell flowers, for instance, to people in celebration of Mother’s Day in May or Father’s Day in June.
Across America, economists have estimated that at least 50 percent of all restaurants, caterer enterprises, community cafes and food truck operations have closed for good during the last 11 months.
Ciarrocchi said, “What’s clear is that there was an economic letdown in the private sector; and, the county tax revenue was down.”
He said one phenomenon that needs further analysis is that income shrank in some areas and grew in others.
According to Ciarrocchi, the hardest hit sectors include hotels, restaurants, attractions, and the health care industries.
Ciarrocchi said the Chester County Gross Domestic Product in 2019 was $40.7 billion. In Pennsylvania, that number was $726 billion. The GDP functions as a comprehensive scorecard of the country's economic health.
Pre-pandemic, the unemployment rate in Chester County was at 3 percent.
“During pandemic and lockdown low points, we hit 12 percent. We are currently at 4.6 percent (employment here in Chester County).”
“This, of course, is not an evenly distributed problem,” Ciarrocchi added. “Hospitality, health care and travel related sectors — gas, repairs, rentals — are much harder hit.”
Conversely, construction and related fields are doing very well, he noted.
Ciarrocchi said at least 15,000 Chester County residents lost their jobs in 2020.
“As a general rule of thumb, Pennsylvania gets hurt worse than the nation; and, Chesco does better than the nation," he said.
Ciarocchi said that although it is evident the restaurant sector is clearly hurting, he foresees a "domino effect" impacting many more business sectors if the business community remains unable to fully reopen.
A partial shutdown, he said, could harm the "quality of life" in Chester County.
On Nov. 25, Wolf signed a third renewal to extend a 90-day proclamation of disaster emergency in Pennsylvania, initially issued last winter, as the pandemic shifted from global news to a national crisis.
The governor first signed the order on March 6, in conjunction with Pennsylvania's announcement of the state's first two presumptive COVID cases.
Then on March 13, the White House issued a national emergency to mitigate the COVID crisis after increasing reports of exposure stateside. That same day, on the eve of Albert Einstein's birthday, Wolf ordered all schools, both private and public, to close down immediately.
Across Chester County, in places such as Unionville and Downingtown, virtual learning began online for students immediately, with school-appointed computers readily available to all.
Still, eleven months later, many regional districts across the Greater Philadelphia Region have yet to reopen their elementary, middle and high school schools.
Today, virtual learning remains the norm for most public students across the Tri-State region, at least thus far in 2021. Yet, not all children, even in Chester County which is home to a very low poverty rate, have Wi-Fi readily available at home.
As Pennsylvania nears the one-year anniversary since the pandemic officially was declared an emergency disaster by Wolf, in many municipalities, public libraries still remain closed.
The libraries which have since reopened during the last 11 months are now typically closed on Sundays. In contrast, a year ago, most public libraries were opened nationwide seven days a week.