HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Workers will be back on the job at more than 100 shuttered state-owned liquor stores to help process online orders, Pennsylvania’s liquor agency said Thursday.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office gave the OK to reopen 106 of the state system’s 600 stores to help with online fulfillment, a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokeswoman said. They will remain off-limits to the public and will not engage in retail sales.
The store closings have been widely unpopular, especially since the state’s swamped online ordering system has been unable to meet customer demand in a state where the liquor board controls the overwhelming majority of retail sales of hard alcohol.
Employees have been getting called back, and stores are expected to open next week for workers.
The plan is to require enhanced sanitation and social distancing measures and to limit the number of employees per location, to help avoid transmission of the new coronavirus.
Wolf, a Democrat, closed the stores about a month ago.
Wendell Young IV, president of Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents about 3,500 of the store clerks, said the PLCB plan is designed to meet a crushing demand for online sales.
“Our goal is to begin opening those 106 early next week and throughout the week,” Young said Thursday. “It’s all going to depend on making sure the stores are ready first, and the staff is trained first.”
Before the COVID-19 crisis, online sales had been a small part of the state liquor system’s $2.7 billion in annual sales. The agency also sells much of the wine consumed in the state.
Through online fulfillment centers in Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia suburbs, the agency was able to fill only about 9,600 orders worth $2.1 million from April 1-8.
Young said the liquor board has also been reconfiguring the 13 centers that it runs across Pennsylvania to fill orders for restaurants and other licensees. Those centers are not open to the public, but instead will be packaging online orders for delivery.
Young said “a couple” of those 13 so-called “warehouse stores” are now operating and rest will be restarted gradually.
Producers, breweries, wineries and distilleries, and privately owned beer distributorships, have been permitted to sell during the shutdown of nonessential businesses.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:
WOLF WARNS OF BIG BUDGET DEFICIT
Pennsylvania is facing a projected budget deficit of up to $5 billion, Wolf warned in a letter to President Donald Trump.
The letter, dated Wednesday, backed calls from other governors for another $500 billion in federal aid for states fighting the spread of the coronavirus. It was issued with two other Democratic governors, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.
Trump narrowly won all three states in 2016, all of which had long backed Democrats in presidential contests.
Wolf said the projected deficit ranging between $4.5 billion and $5 billion will make it more difficult for the state to support workers and businesses as it attempts to rebuild its economy.
Over the weekend, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York issued a call for the additional $500 billion. Hogan is chairman of the National Governors Association and Cuomo is the vice chair.
Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 death toll rose by 60 to 707, the state health department reported Thursday, with more than 1,200 additional people testing positive for the new coronavirus.
Nursing homes have been hit especially hard. More than half of the state’s fatalities have occurred in more than 300 nursing and personal-care homes scattered throughout Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Health. Nearly 3,300 long-term care residents have contracted the virus.
Statewide, more than 27,700 people have tested positive, according to the latest health department statistics.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
BERKS SOUNDS ALARM
A sharp rise in coronavirus cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals in Berks County, officials said Thursday.
Tower Health’s Reading Hospital and Penn State Health St. Joseph released a model that shows a looming shortage of regular hospital beds and ICU beds. Hospital officials said they are working to avoid that worst-case scenario by creating additional bed capacity, adding staff and procuring supplies.
The hospital executives took part in a news conference arranged by the Berks County commissioners.
Board chairman Christian Leinbach said virus cases are rising at a sharper rate in Berks than in neighboring counties. He chided Berks residents and businesses for failing to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“The numbers are bleak in Berks County,” Leinbach said. “We are not doing well. Businesses and individuals are not doing enough of the basic things, like wearing a mask.”
More than 1,400 Berks County residents have tested positive for the virus, according to the state health department. Leinbach, citing data from the coroner’s office, said 52 have died.
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