HERMITAGE — With Mercer County heading to the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 reopening protocols, city officials are looking for ways to support small businesses struggling with the closures.

After dismissing, without a vote, a resolution to send Wolf and Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine a letter urging that Mercer County be permitted to move to the green phase of the administration’s “red-yellow-green” reopening program, city commissioners agreed last week to consider programs to aid the city’s business community.

The potential resolution became largely moot Friday, when Wolf announced that Mercer would move into the green designation Friday, a week after the neighboring counties of Crawford, Venango and Lawrence, left the yellow restrictions. In Ohio, the entire state has moved to a rough equivalent of Pennsylvania’s green designation, with restaurants offering indoor dining and retail outlets shopping.

Commissioner William McConnell argued against the resolution and called sending a letter to state officials the kind of political act that the board should avoid. Instead, McConnell suggested the commissioners could look toward other ways of assisting local businesses.

“We can support small businesses without a resolution,” McConnell said.

Board President William Moder said moving Mercer County to the green phase as soon as possible would give local businesses the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with those in all of the neighboring counties.

Commissioner Michael Muha said he would have voted in favor of the resolution to support small businesses, but he had concerns about people who had medical conditions that could be exacerbated by the virus. Muha cited his wife, a Head Start teacher who has a blood clotting ailment. 

Commissioner Louis Squatrito argued in favor of the resolution, and said small businesses and their employees are struggling with the closures. As an example of the need, Squatrito said he filled the blessing box at New Virginia Methodist Church three times in as many weeks, and that it was always empty shortly afterward.

“We ought to think about the people,” Squatrito said.

Instead of a letter to the governor, commissioners decided to search for a more focused way to support small businesses.

Board Vice President Duane Piccirilli said authorities have to strike a difficult balance between public health as the pandemic recedes, and helping businesses and workers who need income.

“There are no easy answers, we just have to do what we think is best,” Piccirilli said. “People have been informed of what to do in the pandemic. Unfortunately, the color of the county does not always control their actions.”

Hermitage has already undertaken action to ease the burden on local businesses.

In March, the commissioners approved a measure to defer payments from local businesses to the city’s Revolving Loan Fund, a program which provides funding to businesses to improve themselves by purchasing property and equipment.

More assistance could be coming in the future, said Assistant City Manager Gary Gulla, with city officials working to provide direct funding to local businesses.

Hermitage can apply for $193,732 in additional Community Development Block Grant funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Gulla said could be used to assist the city’s business community.

The Hermitage Community and Economic Development Commission is developing a program to provide eligible small businesses with assistance for payroll, rent or mortgages, utilities and advertising, and assistance for businesses to comply with recommended social distancing practices, Gulla said.

“Like everything in our personal and professional ‘COVID’ lives these days the CARES Act is a first,” he said. “The program is very fluid, but we are doing our very best to efficiently plan to deliver the CDBG assistance within the community in response to the pandemic.”

Because it could take weeks or months to receive the CARES Act grants, the commissioners were considering using local funding to support local businesses, then use the federal grants to reimburse the city. However, Gulla said city officials could not move forward with such a plan until the CARES Act funds are approved.

“We have been looking at some form of local funds, but we would not go down that path until we felt comfortable that the state was approving our program,” Gulla said.

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