Regional Experts Discuss Coronavirus Pandemic at Virtual Town Hall

By Colin McEvoy on April 16, 2020

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Browne hosted a virtual town hall about the coronavirus pandemic.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Browne hosted a virtual town hall on April 15, providing his constituents with crucial economic, health, and community information related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham, President & CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, was one of the panelists, providing information about LVEDC’s efforts to support regional companies and connect them with emergency financing loans and other funding.

“LVEDC has shifted its focus from recruiting companies to the Lehigh Valley to helping make sure we keep those business that are already here afloat and help them get through this crisis,” Cunningham said.

Other panelists included Brian Nester, President & CEO of the Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN); Eric Kratz, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Senate Labor and Industry Committee; and Kristen Rotz, President of the United Way of Pennsylvania.

Nester said LVHN may have reached the peak of new COVID-19 cases coming into its hospitals for care, and may be approaching the peak for the number of patients in the network across the greater Lehigh Valley region, though it may be another week before that is confirmed.

“That would mean LVHN probably will not see an overrun of its hospital infrastructure, which would be very good news,” Nester said. “Kudos to the community for adhering to social isolation and shelter in place measures. I think that’s why we’re experiencing the peak earlier than we had feared.”

Kratz said the unemployment system has received more than 1.3 million claims since March 15, higher than the 750,000 in total it received last year. That has resulted in delays and responsiveness problems, but he urged applicants to be patient.

“We’ve had an unprecedented demand in a short amount of time, and we’re doing everything we can to accommodate the additional demand,” Kratz said, adding that additional staffing had been brought in to provide assistance.

Cunningham discussed LVEDC’s efforts to connect Lehigh Valley small businesses with emergency financing, including a now closed Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority program. LVEDC submitted 26 applications for Lehigh and Northampton county companies through the program, totaling $2.4 million in loan financing.

Due to the balanced nature of the Lehigh Valley economy, more than 192,000 of the region’s workers are employed by state-defined life-sustaining sectors, such as nurses, grocery store workers, and e-commerce employees. Lehigh Valley also has a high percentage of “exposed” workers, meaning they hold essential jobs that cannot be done from home.

“Clearly the businesses that have been hit the hardest are brick and mortar retail, arts, hospitality, and those who rely on customer flow immediately,” Cunningham said. “They are the largest portion of the unemployed in the area.”

Those seeking unemployment to file their claims online where possible, Kratz said, to help reduce the workload on the state.

The self-employed and gig workers, who have not traditionally been eligible for unemployment benefits, will be offered an assistance program starting next week. Kratz stressed they should not seek regular unemployment in the meantime or they will be denied.

Routs said Browne’s 16th District has seen roughly double the number of food requests than usual, and calls for rental assistance are also high. United Way of Pennsylvania has established a COVID-19 response fund to help support the most vulnerable residents.

“We know there are a lot of people struggling to feed their families right now,” she said. “At United Way, we have a commitment to try to support the most vulnerable populations in our communities, and we’ve expanded that definition due to the pandemic.”

Nester stressed that although LVHN may have reached its peak in coronavirus cases, Lehigh Valley residents should continue to wear masks and practice social isolation measures.

“I think because there’s this sense of relief that we’ve hit the peak that now we’ll be OK, but that unfortunately is not the case,” he said. “Frankly we may need to continue those precautions until we have a vaccine or treatment.”

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