Pennsylvania’s business community has had to come together in times of upheaval before. Two World Wars, the Great Depression, and economic recessions have come and gone during our organization’s more than 100 year history. And now, yet again, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis that we are determined to collectively overcome — the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the world ushered in 2020, employers were excited to welcome a new decade with a strong economy and a bold sense of optimism. Budget negotiations were expected to be largely agreed to on time, and the PA Chamber was focused on working toward a spending plan that still encouraged private sector investment and job growth. All of that changed in early March when the first case of COVID-19 — a virtually unknown disease that as of this writing still has no approved treatment or vaccine — was reported in Pennsylvania. Within a matter of weeks, with a growing number of cases being reported across the state and the world, the Wolf Administration made the call to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, with the goal being to “flatten the curve” in new cases and prevent the doomsday scenario of a healthcare system so overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases that they had to turn patients away. Only businesses deemed “life sustaining” were allowed to continue operating — a determination that created confusion for many employers who did not know if they qualified for this designation; along with the process of applying for a waiver in order to remain open. As March ended and April began, our once-churning economy had all but ground to a halt. Unemployment skyrocketed to levels never seen before, and the daily headlines were a steady drumbeat each day of climbing case counts, directives to stay at home and no end in sight.
It was during this incredibly uncertain and stressful time that the PA Chamber worked to get employers’ most frequently asked questions answered by keeping a direct line of communication with the administration. We provided businesses with information on how to either donate or begin producing the personal protective equipment that was desperately needed and in short supply, and also hosted a series of webinars with state health and economic leaders, legal and HR experts to help businesses navigate the evolving situation and ensure that they were aware of the help available to them in the form of state and federal economic aid.
Gradually, the data regarding new case counts began to change. Rather than continuing to shoot upward, there appeared to be a leveling off of new cases each day. Pennsylvania was successfully flattening the curve — and hospital and health systems throughout the state became increasingly confident that they had the capacity to treat patients. But despite these strides, and the medical community learning more each day about how to mitigate the spread of the virus, there was very little discussion as to how to begin the critical and enormous effort to get the state’s economy back up and running again.
The Pennsylvania Chamber took up this mantle in a bold way, through a new initiative — “Bringing PA Back.” Together with our broad-based membership, local chamber partners, statewide associations, and elected officials, we began the process of determining the information that employers needed to know as they prepared to safely re-open their facilities to employees and customers. A comprehensive website —www.BringingPABack.com — was developed with health and safety guidance developed by the Centers for Disease Control, the state and OSHA; along with industry-specific guidelines and best practices to provide a one-stop shop for employers working to operate in the pandemic era. As the Wolf Administration gradually rolled out its county-by-county re-opening plan, an interactive map on our website informed business owners of the phase (red, yellow or green) that their county either stood in or was moving to, as well as operating guidance under each phase. With each county now solidly green, updates on the administration’s latest mitigation orders, as well as a PA Chamber-led campaign to encourage mask wearing, has replaced this map.
Another major component of our “Bringing PA Back” initiative is a robust set of public policy recommendations. As the Statewide Voice of Business™, the PA Chamber has always relied on the valued feedback of our member companies to set the groundwork for our legislative agenda — and “Bringing PA Back” is no exception. At the forefront of our priority list is ensuring that temporary, targeted liability protections are in place — both for the entire medical community as they combat the spread of the virus; and for companies that are working through the pandemic to ensure that PPE needs are being met and our supply chains continue.
What’s next? The PA Chamber didn’t develop “Bringing PA Back” as a short-lived initiative. We know that it took extraordinary circumstances to bring us to this point, and it will take equally extraordinary measures to bring us out of it. It’s true that this crisis presents a number of challenges, and not every business will survive. But it also presents an opportunity for the Commonwealth to collectively recognize the need for actions that will lead us out of this crisis and into a brighter future. Chief among them will be implementing the policy reforms that will encourage re-investment and job creation.
The “Bringing PA Back” website includes a quote from PA Chamber President and CEO Gene Barr, who says that Pennsylvanians are a people who can rise to any challenge, and that “our organization stands ready to work with elected officials, public health experts and employers on implementing a workable process to get back to business in a responsible way.” It is in the spirit of collaboration that this new initiative was developed, and it is in that spirit that we will continue our efforts to propel Pennsylvania forward. In addition to continuing our efforts to enact the many pieces of legislation that will help our state’s private sector emerge from this time, we are simultaneously developing our vision for the next phase of Pennsylvania’s re-opening. As the PA Chamber’s rich history has shown, our organization — driven by our diverse membership — will lead the state through these trying times and into an era that once again showcases how our resolve, innovation and strength paves the way toward a brighter future.
Lindsay Andrews is director of member communications with the PA Chamber.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.