David Neff’s scramble to safely reopen his gastropub in Lancaster got an assist from the $95.2 million injection of federal coronavirus relief funds the Lancaster County commissioners began distributing to small businesses, local governments and health care facilities over the summer.
“It really helped a lot,” Neff said of the $50,000 grant he obtained for Hunger n Thirst, part of which paid for improving fresh airflow through the restaurant, adding ionization units, and outfitting the dining room with four air purifiers that filter ultrafine particles.
To date, the commissioners have allocated about $77.5 million, or 81%, of the one-time federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding, money that was critical in helping businesses stay afloat and testing centers and contact tracing keep up with the rampaging virus. A total of $46.2 million, or 49%, has been spent.
With a key funding program expiring amid the ongoing pandemic, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health is trying to figure out how to continue the robust testing and contact tracing needed to reduce sickness and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. Coronavirus relief bill funding must be spent by Dec. 30.
“I think the commissioners acted quickly and appropriately to get the money out the door to individuals, companies and communities most in need,” Tom Baldrige, Lancaster Chamber president, said. But he added there remains “a lot of need out there.”
Commissioner Ray D’Agostino told Lancaster Watchdog a committee is drafting a plan that the commissioners may consider this week for how to spend the remaining $17.8 million before the Dec. 30 deadline.
The county commissioners, given authority over how to disburse the federal relief, divided the $95.2 million into three main buckets: $37.9 million, or 40%, for reopening the economy; $31 million, or 33%, for fighting COVID-19 transmission; and $14.5 million, or 15%, for government services and public safety.
Another $11.8 million, or 12%, was held in reserve.
The grants were “crucial to helping (many businesses) pay rent, get supplies to reopen, or retrofit their space for safety requirements,” said Heather Valudes, Lancaster Chamber vice president.
The $50,000 investment at Hunger n Thirst was made to assure customers and staff of the restaurant’s safety when it reopened indoor dining at 50% capacity a couple of weeks ago, Neff said. Hunger n Thirst now seats up to 24 patrons indoors and 28 outdoors, and employs about 10, less than half of the staff it employed before the pandemic.
Hunger n Thirst was one of 939 small businesses — from bridal shops to lawn care services — that received grants totaling $26.8 million. The average grant was about $19,000 for businesses with 20 or fewer employees; $55,000 for those from 21 to 100 employees, the chamber said.
But the funding fell far short of the need. The requests for business grants totaled over $57 million, over twice the amount of the available money.
Separately, the county spent nearly $5 million on bulk purchases of personal protective equipment for businesses — from wipes to thermometers. The chamber said it packaged the supplies into kits and shipped them free to businesses requesting them. As of Sept. 30, over $4.1 million had been spent.
The Lancaster Chamber and Economic Development Company of Lancaster County also created and managed a website, RecoveryLancaster.com, through which businesses requested kits and grants. The two groups have so far shared over $1.3 million from the relief fund for their efforts.
Meanwhile, the Lancaster County Convention Center has drawn on $2,945,000 of the $3.3 million the commissioners set aside for the tax-supported downtown meeting facility.
Discover Lancaster, a tourism agency, had not yet spent its $815,000 allocation as of Sept. 30, but has submitted $300,000 in expenses for approval, said Patrick Mulligan, the county’s budget services director.
The Lancaster County Workforce Development Board recently received the commissioners’ authorization to spend $300,000 to help the unemployed pay for transportation and child care while they look for jobs.
“People have struggled with the things that are keeping them from getting to or keeping a job,” said Cathy Rychalsky, the board'’ executive director.
Health and welfare funding
A full accounting of the $31 million set aside for health care and welfare related service was not immediately available. As of Sept. 30, $26.1 million had been allocated, but only $3.4 million had been spent, according to the county.
Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health was allocated $18.6 million for testing and contact tracing and another $6.1 million for administrative costs.
Through June, the hospital spent $2.6 million. Much higher expenditures occurred July through September, but those costs are still processing, a spokesperson said.
“CARES Act funding enabled LG Health to convene partners throughout the county to quickly stand up public testing sites and conduct contact tracing, unprecedented steps essential to our ability to successfully manage the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” Dr. Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer, told the Watchdog.
The LG Health contact tracing center employs 46 people.
The county allocated a separate $908,000 for testing and training at nursing homes. As of Sept. 30, about 17 nursing homes had spent $462,000, Mulligan said. Expenditures at six more nursing homes was processing.
Other funding categories include:
— $5.2 million for county operations. Over $4.7 million was spent as of Sept. 30.
— $2.8 million for municipalities. Twenty-seven have shared $1.2 million to date with other requests in process.
— $2.6 million for school districts. Seven districts have shared $1.2 million to date, with other requests in process.
— $1.4 million for fire and EMS organizations. Twenty-eight have shared $420,00 to date, with other requests in process.
— $461,000 for libraries. Thirteen have shared $201,500 with $35,500 more in process.
— $200,000 to the Lancaster County Housing Authority to help people pay rent.
— $200,000 for constables. As of Sept. 30, $39,471 had been spent.