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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional and clarifying information on House Bill 2429 as well as recent developments including the bill’s passing in the state House of Representatives. (4/30/20, 3:15 p.m.) This article was also updated to clarify comments from Sharon Althouse.
While seeds and seedlings are available locally, and greenhouses, nurseries, and floriculture production businesses are allowed to be open in Pennsylvania, businesses that sell lawn and garden equipment such as lawn tractors and tillers remain on Gov. Tom Wolf’s closed list.
House Bill 2429, co-sponsored by State Representative Russ Diamond, would grant a targeted waiver for Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 business closure order that would allow all lawn and garden equipment and supplies stores to open for in-person operation, as long as staff and customers can adhere to the social distancing practices and other mitigation measures defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Representative Diamond told LebTown just before publication time that the bill has passed the State House, 133 to 69.
Many garden supply businesses remain closed during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the business closure mandate, unless they had requested and received a waiver.
Sharon Althouse of Althouse’s Nursery and Landscaping Company along Route 422, 561 West Main Ave., Myerstown, supports the bill to help the family business.
“Untie our hands and let us do the right thing,” Althouse said. “Let us open our business and we will protect our customers and our staff.”
The Althouse nursery and landscaping business sells trees, shrubbery, mulch and stone, but the physical location is not open to the public due to the state business closure order.
“We’re not allowed to sell retail right now,” Althouse said. “This is a prime month for us to sell retail and we’re losing two months of income … we opened in 1990 and this is our worst year, by far.”
The garden center can sell a product like mulch to landscapers, as long as the landscaper is a wholesale business.
“It’s a mixed-up mess,” Althouse said. “If we get into May, June, it will be too late for many trees and shrubs that must be planted before it gets too hot. We’re getting trees in to sell, but we don’t know if we’ll be allowed to sell them. People call us and we have to ask if they’re wholesalers.”
State Reps. Kate Klunk (R-169) and Torren Ecker (R-193) are co-sponsors of the bill which aims to help area garden centers supply Pennsylvania residents with seeds and plants in order to grow fresh produce during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is an immediate need. The critical time to get plants in the garden is now,” Diamond said. “We could see this become law by the weekend, if the governor says ‘go ahead.’ As soon as the Senate passes it, the governor signs it and it becomes law.”
After speaking with the owner of Mason Farms, a nursery and greenhouse operation in Erie, Diamond became even more certain that a change in the current law was needed, when the business owner shared his concerns that all his plants would be dead within days because he couldn’t move them out to businesses where they could be sold to gardeners.
“Some people will say ‘Layser’s [Nursery] is already open’ but some counties, and even some Pennsylvania cities, have their own health departments and they’re all interpreting this differently,” Diamond said. “This would allow for all garden and lawn care centers for sales and supplies to be open.”
Read More: Coronavirus restrictions hit area nurseries during crucial spring season
Many garden centers across the state were denied permission to reopen by their county health boards or by the state Department of Community and Economic Development, Diamond said.
On the other hand, Frey’s Greenhouse and Garden Center, 1875 Colebrook Road, is now open to the public, after first only selling orders curbside, said an employee.
Customers to Frey’s are asked to wear a mask or other face covering, to strictly adhere to social distancing, and if possible, to pay by debit or credit card so cash does not have to change hands. Procedures to follow before entering are listed on the garden center’s door.
House Bill 2429 would allow people to choose their own plants, rather than calling in an order to a greenhouse, but that’s not the main focus of the bill, Diamond said.
“The underlying problem is our food chain supply. It’s breaking down,” Diamond said. “My biggest concern is food security.
“There’s a disconnect in our food supply chain,” Diamond said. “It had been efficient, but now the efficiency has narrowed our channels used to get food, and I’m concerned that we’re going to be looking at food shortages.”
Information from print or broadcast news regarding the blocked food supply reinforces that scenario every day, Diamond said.
“Every day, there are more of these stories,” Diamond said. “Barns of chickens getting gassed, milk being poured away, vegetables rotting in the fields, and that’s scary.”
Read More: Shifting demand, supply chain issues force dairy farmers to dump fluid milk
It’s not only businesses who will be helped by H.B. 2429, but home gardeners as well, Diamond said.
Growing their own produce can help families through the summer if stores are having difficulty keeping shelves stocked, Diamond said.
The Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association has written a letter to Gov. Wolf, representing more than 15,000 Pennsylvanians who are asking for their local independent family-owned garden centers to be allowed to open, according to a news release from Diamond’s office.
“I worry about the densely populated cities,” Diamond said. “Around here, in the country, it’s easier [to get food] because everybody knows somebody who has a few chickens or a large garden.”
In the future, after the pandemic is history, the country needs to take a look at the way food is supplied and needs to diversify the supply chain, Diamond said.
Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.
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