While the May 15 move of most Southwestern Pennsylvania counties to the “yellow” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan has occurred, the overall scenario has a way to go before even somewhat resembling life before COVID-19.

Even though more businesses are allowed to return to operation, measures to ensure the safety of employees and customers, such as wearing personal protective equipment and following social-distancing protocols, remain in place.

An audio “telephone town hall” forum hosted last week by state Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon – with guests Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive, and Matt Smith, Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce president – addressed aspects of the “yellow” phase, with participants fielding callers’ questions about the subject.

“This progress into ‘yellow’ means that we here in Southwest Pennsylvania, we’ve been doing a really good job limiting the spread of the coronavirus, or flattening the curve,” said Iovino, whose district includes Peters Township.

“The mitigation restrictions that you have complied with, the sacrifices that you have made, it’s paid off,” she continued. “And if we’re able to maintain this flattening of the curve, and eventually a down trajectory in new cases, I’m very optimistic that we’ll continue to reopen businesses and see our economy return to the thriving economy is once was.”

Fitzgerald gave credit for the improvement in status for most of the region, including Allegheny, Washington and Greene counties – Beaver County remains in the “red” phase – to following advice provided by medical experts.

“We’ve got to make sure that we continue to cooperate and continue to listen to our experts, because as we open up office, retail, child care, gatherings with 25 people or less, we still need to have the physical distancing,” he said. “We still need to be wearing our masks. We still need to be washing our hands, and all the mitigating factors we’ve had.”

In the “yellow” phase, in-person gatherings are to be limited to 25 individuals or fewer. Places of business must limit the number of patrons to 50% of what their capacities were prior to COVID-19.

For his part, Smith credited regional success to collaboration that have emerged between the private and public sectors, and among various entities on multiple levels.

“We want to continue expanding the reopening in a smart and thoughtful manner, and we really think that’s going to enable us to maintain our line of sight moving through this, as we know this is not going to be a linear process,” he said. “There are going to be ups and downs.”

Among the questions fielded by the panel was whether businesses would continue to feature special hours for older adults and those with compromised health conditions.

Iovino explained the requirement.

“At a minimum, they must set aside one hour per week. It’s minimal, and people are encouraged to do more than that,” she said, noting that many of the businesses she has encountered make such provisions on a daily basis.

Another question pertained to business’ liability: “Will they be punished if someone contracts COVID-19 at their establishment?”

The issue has been a point of discussion among members of the organization Smith heads.

“We think it can be done in a very narrow way, tied directly to this time period and built in with a sunset provision, where this protection would expire when the emergency ends,” he said. “And so we look at it as a safe harbor, if you will, for those businesses and other entities – nonprofits, governmental agencies – that are operating on good faith, to operate safely in following the applicable state and federal guidance.”

As for those who don’t, “In no way are we or anyone who’s advocating for this pushing for any protection or shield for ‘bad actors,’” he said.

Many business owners are wondering if their insurance policies will cover losses related to COVID-19.

In response, Iovino has introduced legislation that “allows an avenue for business owners to file a claim with regard to property damage,” she said, with language in the bill defining such damage as “namely, the presence of the COVID-19 coronavirus.”

Smith said his organization is working on the issue at the federal level, citing particular concern for businesses with density issues, such as restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues.

“Even when the economy is up and fully operational, if you will, in this ‘new normal,’ they’re likely to have restrictions because of the social-distancing requirements,” he said. “And so there’s likely going to be a need, we think, for a federal bridge, financing or some sort of support for those businesses that, simply by virtue of social distancing requirements, are not going to be able to operate at full capacity.”

For an audio recording of the forum, visit www.senatoriovino.com/covid19/.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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