National anniversaries are often of the tragic sort: the Challenger disaster, the Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11.
Undoubtedly there is grief at the pandemic’s one-year anniversary for John Longstreet of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association that represents roughly 4,000 eateries and hotels, and also for Zach Shamberg of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association representing over 600 long-term care facilities.
Few industries experienced as much turmoil as these two during the last year.
“Frankly every day since March 18th has turned out to be an extreme challenge,” Longstreet said. “And I…I’m almost hesitant to even say that because I look at the 26,000 restaurants and 200 hundred hotels around the States, what they’ve gone through,” adding that he took dozens of calls from tearful associates and colleagues who were helplessly watching decades of work vanish.
Shamberg says the front-line workers in the nursing home field had to reach deep in their emotional reserves as well, because those caregivers “were acting as pseudo-family members because they were forced to restrict visitation” to their elderly patients.
Yet for both, beyond that sense of grief, there’s also a sense of regret at lost opportunities. Both say that their input and advice on managing the crisis was initially welcomed by the Wolf administration. But they were soon cut off, left with no seat at the table.
After one nursing home in Washington experienced a deadly outbreak in late February just weeks before the virus would be found in Pennsylvania, Shamberg says his association asked the Wolf administration to give flexibility on licensing issues to help bring nurses and caregivers in from out of state, along with other measures of assistance.
“That request was answered immediately, but then we weren’t brought to the table after that,” Shamberg said. “And even as the pandemic wore on, and the things that we as an industry needed were clear — PPE testing, more staffing assistance, funding, liability protections, the vaccine roll out late last year and early this year — our voices weren’t necessarily being heard. In fact, they were being ignored.”
I was so shocked on July 15th, when all of a sudden, they abandoned their own work and went to the 25 percent capacity, which made no sense and had no backing in science.”
Longstreet says the PRLA had excellent input on helping fashion restaurant standards in terms of Gov. Wolf’s stoplight color-coded reopening, saying they asked for and got outdoor dining added to the yellow phase.
Longstreet said the restaurant regulations under the “green” phase “were some of the safest and most sensible, carefully thought-out research standards in the entire United States. And that’s why I was so shocked on July 15th, when all of a sudden, they abandoned their own work and went to the 25 percent capacity, which made no sense and had no backing in science.”
“So, my regret is that the great relationship that we had in the front end, that I thought was really beneficial, not just to the restaurant community but to the general public, couldn’t be sustained,” Longstreet added later. “And I…I still don’t have an answer why it wasn’t.”
For Longstreet, the disappointment in July only multiplied when Gov. Wolf announced a three-week closure for restaurants and bars through the profitable Christmas and New Year’s season.
The PRLA doesn’t have a hard number of restaurants that have permanently closed, but Longstreet believes the state will run higher than the national average because of how tight the regulations were.
“In the most recent PA survey (Feb) 20 percent of the restaurants said they would be closed permanently in 3 months without significant aid,” Longstreet said. “That number [in Pennsylvania] would be about 5360 restaurants.”
Pennsylvania’s nursing home response is still a contentious item, as well. The most recent tally of deaths in long-term care facilities shows the state had the 9th worst record among other states when ranked for the percent of fatalities in LTCFs.
While most New England states fared worse in LTCF deaths than Pennsylvania, many neighbors were noticeably better, such as New Jersey which only had 34 percent LTCF deaths, West Virginia with 30 percent, or Ohio at 40 percent.
And Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey has begun to press Acting Health Secretary Allison Beam for more information on the state’s response to nursing homes and LTCFs.
Former Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine faced brief questioning over the state’s LTCF response at a Senate confirmation hearing last month for her appointment by President Biden to be deputy health secretary of the Department Health and Human Services.
Both Longstreet and Shamberg have a sense of wariness at the one-year mark, saying the anniversary is another milestone in a road of an unknown length.
“What we have stressed in communication with not just our members, but with lawmakers, the media, the general public is that this is not over,” Shamberg said. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel, certainly with the vaccine, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to reach the end anytime soon.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd at broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports at protonmail.com.