Lawmakers wanted to learn the impact of the pandemic shutdowns and restrictions
Recently Rebecca Oyler, NFIB’s Pennsylvania Legislative Director, testified before a joint hearing of the House Labor and Industry and Health Committees. Testimony was taken to assess the impact of the Department of Health pandemic mitigation efforts on business and employment in Pennsylvania. The following is an abridged version of that testimony:
From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, small business owners have been committed to doing their best to ensure the health and safety of their customers, their employees, and their communities during this challenging time. Small businesses have worked hard to keep providing essential goods and services, and many reoriented their businesses to provide necessary equipment and supplies. Still others planned ways to serve customers in innovative ways. Entrepreneurs are problem-solvers, and most rose to the challenge.
However, as mandates and guidelines changed suddenly and often, many found it difficult to hold things together. The uncertainty that has become the new “normal” has forced many small businesses to close their doors for good. And we know that more will follow unless something changes.
What can be done to help small businesses survive and recover? Two of the most important elements of small business success are predictability in expectations and flexibility in implementation. Provide them with these two things, and entrepreneurs will find a way to manage almost any problem.
But unfortunately, these are two things that have been sorely lacking during this crisis. Until we provide them some certainty about the future and the flexibility they need to manage bumps along the way, our small businesses will never achieve their potential, and as a result, our economy will continue to suffer, our tax revenue will never rebound, and unemployment will remain high.
Many business owners were caught off guard by the urgency with which many Department of Health policies took effect, including the mask mandate. Though it was unclear in the beginning whether masks were required or not, employers were perfectly willing to protect their employees by providing masks when the decision was made. But they had very little time to comply. Many “life-sustaining” business owners were unable to find mask on such short notice, which jeopardized their ability to stay open and provide needed goods and services. Many businesses just couldn’t pull it off.
Small business owners had problems finding other necessary supplies after the April 5 Business Safety Measures order, which took effect the very next day. The order forced a near scramble for hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, paper towels, and soaps. Businesses also scrambled to find shields and physical barriers or other necessary items to rearrange their space after the April 15 Worker Safety Measures order. Others quickly needed to procure e-commerce services to comply with the various orders. Finding these items and services was made all the more difficult by broken links in supply chains that were caused by other businesses facing the same issues.
Another concern many small business owners have had is a lack of consistency and clarity on certain policies, especially when they changed unexpectedly. This has been exacerbated by poor communication, causing various parties – employers, employees, and even state agency staff – having different information.
In many cases, the uncertainty and lack of specificity have exacerbated preexisting workforce issues unnecessarily, especially for “life-sustaining” businesses that need “all hands on deck” to keep going. Many of these businesses have difficulty finding qualified workers during normal times. When workers can’t work due to quarantine orders that may not make sense, it can shut the business down and cause irreparable harm.
Small businesses are willing to do what it takes to keep their employees and customers safe, but confusing and hastily written rules are unhelpful. What they desperately need is clear and consistent guidelines that are well communicated, along with sufficient time to put them into place.
An important consideration is that these guidelines must also provide enough flexibility to allow small businesses to implement them in the safest and most effective way for their individual business. For example, many small restaurants very much want (and need) to increase their capacity to 50%, but they can’t do it without seating customers at the bar. If it can be done with social distancing and physical barriers, why isn’t this an option?
Many small business owners also question why current guidelines and mandates are the same for every business across Pennsylvania when case counts vary so much in different areas of the state. As it stands, with all counties in the Green phase, it’s unclear why a small business in Warren County, with only 44 total cases, is under the same restrictions as a small business in Delaware County, which has had over 11,000 total cases and almost 18 times the number of cases per capita!
With no current plans beyond Green, which is unsustainable for too many small businesses, many are hanging on by a thread because they have no idea what the future holds. And they worry constantly that things could change on a dime again. They need some assurance that there is a path forward and a recognition that a reasonable balance can be achieved between pandemic policies and economic sustainability.
We all know that small businesses are the pillars of their local communities. These businesses are neighborhood gathering spots, but they are also taxpayers and employers. We need them. They will play a big part in our recovery from this crisis, and we should do everything in our power to help them recover and thrive.
Recovery will require us to encourage entrepreneurs to bet on their businesses again, to open safely, reorient if necessary, bring their employees back, and invest in the future. We will never be able to achieve this with so much uncertainty surrounding the current crisis and future events. NFIB PA is asking PA policymakers to prioritize policies that will provide consistency, certainty, and flexibility, with adequate notice, to our business community to lay the foundation for a strong recovery ahead.