WEST CHESTER — Just how much longer can Chester County restaurants survive before going out of business for good?
With the pandemic entering month 11, restaurants – the ones still in business – are dealing with limited seating and relying mainly on take-out business. But that hasn't been paying the bills.
"There need to be a plan," said Guy Ciarrocchi, president and CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry. "Just as we had Warp Speed, we need a similar focus. We need to be laser focused on getting us reopened and engaged."
Speaking this week on the Chris Stigall Morning Show on WPHT, Ciarrocchi said Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf's aggressive mitigation efforts are hampering local businesses, and he is concerned many may close their doors for good if it continues much longer.
"The idea that this nation, which has managed to discover a vaccine for a virus we didn't know about, can come together and figure out how to open up pizza parlors, bars, restaurants and elementary schools," Ciarrocchi said. "We're not being united as a nation to get back to normalcy. The call to arms has been to stand down and wait. And for many small businesses, they can't."
Ciarrocchi's concerns come after a recent survey from the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association that found that 70 percent of neighborhood restaurants and bars may not survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Survey respondents saw $227,179 average decline in July revenue. And more than 70 percent of the businesses have experienced cash flow problems like difficulty paying utilities, rent, taxes and loan repayments.
Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, also took aim at Wolf's strategy in managing the pandemic.
"While the PA Chamber appreciates Governor Wolf’s focus on helping Pennsylvania overcome the pandemic era, we do not agree that policies that will increase employer tax burdens and the cost of doing business in the Commonwealth are the best means to achieve this goal," Barr said. "In fact, these proposals will only serve to slow our economic recovery. As we approach the one year mark of the virus’s first appearance in the Commonwealth, businesses across a wide range of industries continue to struggle."
Ciarrocchi said that the Wolf Administration rushed to lock down the state in March of last year, but never had a real plan to reopen.
"Pennsylvania is a national lagger," Ciarrocchi said. "There are sectors of the economy that are devastated. And sectors of the hospitality industry may take as long as 2025 to get back on stable footing. That's just unacceptable."
Ciarrocchi is pushing for a national effort to reopen businesses safely.
"We need to explain to folks that there is a way to go about your life safely, and a vast majority of us have to be concerned, not necessarily for us, but if you are 85 or have emphysema. We are messing with people's long-term viability."
Ciarrocchi said the problem is solvable, especially because there are vaccines, and society knows how the virus is transferred.
"There is no reason we can't have a baseball league or a softball league," he said. "No one is suggesting that tomorrow, we have 70,000 people at Lincoln Financial Field. But we are suggesting the idea that kids can't go into school for an English class is ridiculous. The idea that a pizza parlor can't have 50 percent capacity is ridiculous. We need the planning to move ahead.
"Some students can do cyber education, some professionals can work from home, but many can't. We need to reopen. It's in our economic interest. It's in our mental well-being and our psyche that we do it.
Said Barr: “As we collectively aim to jumpstart our economy and rebuild the Commonwealth’s workforce, it is counterintuitive to place additional burdens and hardships on the same people we’re relying on to drive our economic recovery forward. In addition to looking at possible funding support, there needs to be a focus on policies that don’t come with a monetary cost but would provide significant relief to job creators – such as much needed targeted liability protections, which would help a multitude of industries."
"Waiting until the summer to reopen just isn't an option for struggling Chester County businesses," Ciarrocchi said.
"If it's going to take them three of four years to recover, the day to start to get them back on their feet is today, not a year from now," he said.