Layoffs Begin in Mercer County after Shutdown Order

MERCER COUNTY, Pa. – Less than 24 hours after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued an order to close all “non-life sustaining businesses” in the commonwealth, Doug Anderson had to lay off the last of his 280 employees and park Anderson Tour & Travel’s 200 vehicles in the trickle-down economic fallout caused by the coronavirus.

“This is really rough. I just had to call all of my staff and tell them to sign up for unemployment. This has been a traumatic time period for me,” he said as his voice broke.

Mercer County Commissioner Timothy McGonigle spent Friday dealing with a constant stream of news alerting him to major companies laying off workers after Wolf shutdown businesses and said residents shouldn’t leave their homes except for necessities.

The governor’s order on Thursday means that 150 sectors of businesses must close physical locations. A full list of affected sectors is available here.

Essential businesses that can remain open include gas stations, grocery stores, drug stores, building materials stores and beer manufacturers, as well as restaurants that provide carryout, delivery and drive-thru services.

Those businesses remaining open must take measures to protect employees and the public by practicing social distancing, which is defined as being six feet apart.

Anderson Coach & Travel is not one of those companies. The charter bus company, out of Greenville, Pa., offers motor-coach charter service in Ohio, Pa., N.Y. and more; individual vacation tours to more than 150 destinations in the United States and Canada; group sightseeing tours and a school bus contracting services.

He said the tour division has “lost a ton of revenue” due to international and domestic travel restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. A European tour, Alaskan cruise and Texas trip were all cancelled in the last week.

Since last Tuesday, the motor coach division was short by $2 million and the tour division lost $300,000 due to cancellations.

But the biggest impact was a result of the schools being closed. Spring is normally a busy time for scholastic educational tours, especially trips to Washington, D.C.

“We’ve had all 40 motor coaches down there around the same time with school groups from all over the Penn-Ohio region,” he said.

As the federal government talks about relief packages for the tourism industry, Anderson said the majority of money is aimed at airlines, followed by rail, transit and cruise ships. He wants to draw attention to ground travel in order to get a foot in door as part of the relief effort.

“Maybe we don’t have the eye of the media as much because we’re a small niche of the travel industry. We may be a small company, but we contribute a lot to the economy,” he said

Doug’s parents, O.D. and Dot Anderson, started the company in 1937. Doug Anderson took over as president with his sister as a business partner. He said the company was transitioning to the third generation as both have sons working for the company.

There are about 2,000 bus companies in the country and Anderson is among the top 50. He said the industry is capital intense and projections are that only 15% to 20% will be able to survive pandemic.

“This was a hardship that no one anticipated, but we’re optimistic. We’re working with government officials because we don’t want to be overlooked,” he said. “We’re going to tighten our belt and be in a position to come back.”

Anderson’s announcement came hours after McGonigle got word of other mass layoffs.

“I was informed from an employee that American Cap Co. in Wheatland has gone from 250 to 190. They have just been laid off,” McGonigle said Friday. “And Primary Health Network told employees to stay home. That has never happened and they are a big part of our economy with their headquarters in Sharon.”

McGonigle said he was told about 60 employees at Primary Health Network had been laid off. No one answered the phone at its headquarters. Primary Health operates in 17 counties in Pennsylvania and Ashtabula County in Ohio. The nonprofit contracts with providers to provide health care services.

McGonigle and Commissioner Scott Boyd said Mercer County is prepared as much as it can be. A formal declaration of emergency was made Thursday, Boyd said.

“This allows us to make necessary purchases and timely decisions without the usual formalities of bids and public meetings,” Boyd said. “We have assured the public that all actions will be publicized on a regular basis to maintain total transparency in government.”

While every “non-life sustaining” industry in Mercer County is affected by the Gov. Wolf’s closure order, Sherris Moreira, executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, said she and her staff are trying to support members by being a hub for information and resources.

“A public health crisis is a serious thing and serious steps need to be taken to stem it,” she said. “We didn’t want to see this happen, but steps are being taken to make sure people are safe. This is a big challenge for our community.”

In a video statement, Gov. Wolf said, “We have no time to lose. With every minute that passes more Pennsylvanians come into contact with the COVID-19 virus.”

Wolf says Pennsylvania State Police, local law enforcement and the state health departments and liquor control Board will enforce the order for nonessential. A spokesman at the Mercer County post said enforcement begins at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. He said command staff is working now to determine what section of state code penalties will fall under for citations and how troopers will be deployed. 

Noncompliance may result in licenses being pulled, fines, possible criminal charges and the inability to qualify for disaster relief plans.

“I don’t think any Pennsylvania business owner was blindsided by this,” said Reyers Shoe Store owner Mark Jubelirer. “Reyers has been open for 134 years and this situation is the first of its kind in every imaginable way.”

He and his brother, Steve, who co-owns the store in Sharon, met with the company’s 30 employees this morning. He said employees had some questions, but weren’t panicked. The company will comply with the order and shutdown and be at home with friends and family – at a physically safe distance, he said.

“This is not going to remain a new normal and we’ll get back to status quo,” Mark Jubelirer said. “We’re going to go support the community into the future and continue to be part of the community. That’s what our parents would do and we’re going to continue our parents’ legacy.” 

Carlee Webb, owner of Webb Winery in Hermitage, will remain open selling wine through a service window and taking online orders that will be available for pick-up or delivered curbside.

“Financially, I’m not confident what tomorrow will bring,” she said. “This is more about being cautious for most businesses.”

Webb said she closed the inside space and halted all wine tastings. She said the order states businesses can only serve what they manufacture. Twenty different wines are available.

“In the beginning it was slow, but now it’s picking up,” Webb said. “We’ve been very steady and very blessed as we’re holding steady. It’s tough because it’s spring and we were ready to amp everything up and now we have to put the breaks on.”

As the coronavirus pandemic has crept closer to home – there are no confirmed cases in Mercer or Lawrence counties, though there are three in Beaver County – citizens are developing their own aid networks.

In a matter of two or three days, a Facebook group called Shenango Valley Take Out was launched and it already has 4,100 members. It lists locations of local restaurants that have remained open and are offering takeout and delivery.

Through the chamber’s Thrive Shenango Valley initiative, a Shenango Valley Play Dates Facebook was created to promote family-friendly activities in the region. It has transitioned to online activities that can be done with kids at home. Posted most recently were a virtual field trip to the Grand Canyon, the entire NASA photo catalog and activities through Scholastic. Volunteers also are reading books via video as schools are closed.

The chamber is also working on a program to have neighbors check in on each other and a gift card support program, which she said would be unveiled in the next week or so. 
But Moreira said some business owners have called her with concerns and worrying about the shutdown. She said the chamber is checking in with the business community via phone calls, emails and mail.

We also have wonderful people and businesses in the community who are trying to turn this into a positive. People are calling and wanting to know how they can help their neighbors or the elderly,” she said. “Several restaurants are providing food for first responders. When a community goes through something like this, the best of humanity comes out.

In Pennsylvania, 268 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of noon Friday. The Pennsylvania Department of Health is encouraging residents to sign up online for AlertPA, a text notification system for health, weather and other important alerts like COVID-19 updates from commonwealth agencies. 

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.