‘Dial back’ or ’emergency brake?’ New lockdowns and the U.S. economy

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The surge in new COVID-19 infections is driving a fresh wave of restrictions in cities and counties across the United States.

California’s “emergency brake,” Oregon’s “freeze,” Philadelphia’s “safer at home” and Minnesota’s “dial back” are among a new patchwork of rules adopted by states, cities and counties that are much less strict and far more narrow than measures imposed to stop the spread of the virus in the spring.

The overall economic bite will be smaller, too, compared to the downdraft that started earlier this year and which led to roughly 22 million people losing their jobs, a collapse in retail spending and a recession.

“I don’t see where you get a 30% hit to GDP,” said Tim Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon. “There’s not as much to take off the table … I’m having a hard time seeing where you are going to derail the recovery.”

Businesses that were fully shut in March, like medical offices, shops, factories, and even hair salons, will remain open in many areas this time around.

That’s in part because many Americans have changed their behavior, businesses from manufacturers to retail stores have added routine temperature checks, and face masks are more common and in many states mandated. Meanwhile, consumers have embraced online shopping and curbside delivery to keep spending.

High-frequency data backs that up: even after the latest explosion in case numbers, economic activity has not collapsed.

SURGICAL STRIKE

Many of the latest restrictions target activities where science shows the spread of the virus is the most pernicious – indoor pursuits, in close quarters, for extended periods of time, or with heavy or unmasked breathing.

That means they will hurt some already hard-hit sectors of the economy, including hospitality and entertainment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday issued a strong recommendation against travel over the Thanksgiving holiday this month, though it did not ban it outright.

Many of the more than two dozen states that have issued new restrictions this week have closed or restricted indoor dining and gyms. California, the biggest state by economic output, is among that group.

At the same time, businesses shut during California’s lockdowns in the spring, including shopping malls, body waxing venues, and barber shops, can continue to operate, albeit with some limits to contain the spread of the virus.

Philadelphia’s ban on indoor dining goes into effect on Friday.

Stock Fishtown and Stock Rittenhouse, which are owned by Philadelphia-based restaurateur Tyler Akin, will shift to carry-out and delivery mode. On Monday new rules in Delaware will force him to reduce capacity at his Le Cavalier restaurant in Wilmington to 30%, down from the current 50%. Though better than being entirely closed down, as was the case in March, Akin may need to adjust staffing to fit revenue.

“We have some really hard conversations ahead of us,” he said.

Efforts to adapt business to the realities of the pandemic may allow some restaurants and bars to weather the worst effects of the restrictions. In Oakland, California, as in many cities around the country, restaurants and bars have built platforms decked out with tables, chairs and propane heaters to make customers more comfortable outside in chillier weather.

It’s “a way to keep our businesses afloat,” said Ari Takata-Vasquez, who leads a small-business alliance in Oakland that has raised money to build the outdoor dining areas for cash-strapped eateries.

She’s working on, or completed, five of them – and has 30 eateries and gyms on the waiting list.

In Minnesota, movie theaters and yoga studios will shut at midnight on Friday, along with indoor and outdoor service at eateries, pubs and gyms. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, like many of his counterparts across the country, is also telling families not to have household gatherings, and he acknowledged the new rules will be felt especially hard by small businesses.

“By closing your doors and putting your financial well-being at risk, you are protecting the lives of your neighbors,” he said this week.

LIGHTER LOCKDOWNS, LESS RELIEF

Many of the newly implemented restrictions are expected, at least for now, to last two to four weeks. But even though lockdowns will be more moderate – and in many places are simply sector-specific curfews rather than sweeping closures – business owners and employees, especially in the restaurant industry, are worried their own financial pain will be sharper.

That’s because Congress has shown little sign of delivering another round of fiscal relief, let alone the massive pandemic packages totaling some $3 trillion passed earlier this year.

The last of the extra government aid for the unemployed is due to run out at the end of this year. A bill with bipartisan support to rescue the restaurant industry is caught in limbo in Congress, as the outgoing Trump administration focuses on challenging the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

While households overall still have excess savings, built in part from prior government aid, for many families that money is likely to run out before a vaccine comes into widespread use.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Jonnelle Marte and Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)

Philadelphia police probe alleged plot to attack vote counting venue

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – Philadelphia police said on Friday they were investigating an alleged plot to attack the city’s Pennsylvania Convention Center, where votes from the hotly contested U.S. presidential election were being counted.

Local police received a tip about a Hummer truck with people armed with firearms driving toward the vote counting venue late on Thursday, a Philadelphia Police spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Police arrested two men and seized their firearms as well as the Hummer truck about which they had received the tip, the spokesman said, adding the probe was being conducted by the police and the FBI.

“The males acknowledged that the silver Hummer was their vehicle, and an additional firearm was recovered from the inside the Hummer,” the spokesman added.

No injuries were reported and no further details about the alleged plot were disclosed.

Video footage broadcast by Action News, an ABC affiliate, showed a number of police officials at the scene late in the night.

On Thursday, supporters of both Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden held rallies in Philadelphia as election staffers slowly counted thousands of mail-in ballots that could decide Pennsylvania’s crucial 20 Electoral College votes.

A state appellate court ruled on Thursday that more Republican observers could enter the building in Philadelphia where poll workers were counting ballots.

The U.S. Postal Service said about 1,700 ballots had been identified in Pennsylvania at processing facilities during two sweeps late on Thursday and were being delivered to election officials.

Trump has said repeatedly without evidence that mail-in votes are prone to fraud, although election experts say that is rare in U.S. elections.

A federal judge in Philadelphia denied an emergency request from Trump’s campaign to stop ballot counting in Philadelphia so long as Republican observers were not present. The campaign had sued Philadelphia County’s Board of Elections on Thursday to seek an emergency injunction.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jonathan Oatis)

In cities across U.S., dueling protests sprout up as vote-counting drags on

By Nathan Layne, Maria Caspani and Katanga Johnson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – A second day of sometimes dueling demonstrations over the integrity of the U.S. presidential election started early on Thursday in Philadelphia and other cities as ballot counting dragged on in a handful of states that would decide the outcome.

Some groups, mainly Democrats, rallied around the slogan to “count every vote,” believing a complete tally would show former Vice President Joe Biden had beaten Republican President Donald Trump.

Ardent Trump supporters countered with cries to “protect the vote” in support of his campaign’s efforts to have some categories of ballots, including some votes submitted by mail, discarded.

Both factions appeared outside a vote-counting center in Philadelphia on Thursday morning. A group of Trump supporters holding Trump-Pence flags and signs saying “vote stops on Election Day” gathered across the street from Biden supporters who danced to music behind a barricade. Similar rallies were planned later in the day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital.

Scott Presler, a pro-Trump activist, said he organized the “Stop the Steal” rally in Harrisburg to ensure that only legal ballots are counted.

“I want to bring national attention for people to take action, for them to call their state legislators,” Presler said in a phone interview while en route to Harrisburg. “I want them to demonstrate and show up in force, that we are not going to allow this election to be stolen by any fraudulent ballots.”

In Washington, a procession of cars and bicycles, sponsored by activists from a group called Shutdown DC, paraded slowly through the streets of the capital to protest “an attack on the democratic process” by Trump and his “enablers,” according to its website.

Most demonstrations in cities around the country have been peaceful and small — sometimes amounting only to a few dozen people with signs standing in a city center — as Biden’s path to victory looks a bit more assured than Trump’s, even though either outcome remains possible.

On Wednesday, a few demonstrations led to clashes with police. The demonstrations were triggered in part by Trump’s comments following Tuesday’s Election Day in which he demanded that vote counting stop and made unsubstantiated, conspiratorial claims about voter fraud.

Police in New York City, Denver, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, all reported they had arrested some protesters, often on charges of blocking traffic or similar misdemeanors.

On the second floor of Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, county election officials sat at six tables steadily processing a few thousand remaining mail-in ballots on Thursday morning, some pausing only to order coffee.

Some Republican and Democratic ballot-counting watchers took notes as officials sorted each batch of 400 ballots one by one, ensuring signatures matched between envelopes and ballots.

Hoping to avoid Election Day crowds during the coronavirus pandemic, more than 100 million Americans submitted ballots during early voting this year, a record-breaking number.

The counting in Atlanta was far calmer than in Phoenix where a crowd of Trump supporters, some armed with rifles and handguns, gathered outside a counting center on Wednesday after unsubstantiated rumors that Trump votes were deliberately not being counted.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Maria Caspani in New York; Katanga Johnson in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Michael Martina in Detroit; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis)

Judge reviews ballot counting in suburban Philadelphia county

(Reuters) – A federal judge in Pennsylvania on Wednesday weighed arguments by Republicans seeking to stop a suburban Philadelphia county from counting mail-in and absentee ballots that voters had been permitted to correct.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage in Philadelphia appeared skeptical of arguments by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, which lawyers for Montgomery County election officials and the Democratic National Committee said could disenfranchise voters.

A decision could have implications for the national presidential race between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Results in several states are unclear, and Pennsylvania is a battleground as mail-in ballots are tabulated. Trump appeared at the White House early Wednesday to falsely claim victory in the presidential race and make unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit had been filed by Kathy Barnette, a conservative political commentator projected to lose her race for a House seat in the state’s 4th Congressional district, and Clay Breece, chairman of the Republican Committee in Berks County.

They accused Montgomery County election officials of having illegally “pre-canvassed” ballots for mistakes and allowing voters to correct them, and sought a temporary restraining order blocking them from being counted.

Thomas Breth, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, likened the case to the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore settled a dispute over vote-counting in Florida, enabling Republican George W. Bush to capture the White House.

“It pains people to mention Bush Gore, but that’s the analysis that applies,” Breth said.

“It is creating the same situation that Florida created in 2000,” with “all of these different counties treating ballots in non-uniform manners,” he added. “There’s a solid argument that you’re voting twice.”

Savage, however, questioned Breth on the fairness of blocking voters from correcting mistakes on their ballots.

“So what happens to my vote?” the judge asked.

Breth said it could be “potentially disqualified.”

“But I was never given the opportunity” to fix it, Savage responded. “I am losing my vote.”

Election officials countered that there was no equal protection violation, and accused the plaintiffs of filing a last-minute lawsuit to undermine voters’ right to vote.

“No one is changing their ballot. No one is voting twice,” said Michele Hangley, a lawyer for the election officials.

She added that voters like the plaintiffs “don’t have a free-floating right to police other people’s votes.”

County officials estimated that only 49 votes were at issue in the lawsuit, while the plaintiffs estimated 1,200.

Savage was appointed to the bench by Bush in 2002.

As of 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT), Barnette trailed Democratic incumbent Madeleine Dean in their House race by 15 percentage points with 84% of the vote counted, The New York Times said, citing data from the National Election Pool/Edison Research.

Dean was ahead by 16 percentage points in Montgomery County, portions of which comprises most of the district.

The case is Barnette et al v Lawrence et al, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. 20-05477.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Tom Hals in Wilmington,; Editing by Alistair Bell)

New York police arrest 30 amid protests after deadly Philadelphia shooting

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – New York police arrested about 30 people as hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Brooklyn late on Tuesday following a deadly police shooting in Philadelphia of a Black man armed with a knife.

“Approximately 30 people have been arrested,” a New York Police Department spokesman told Reuters by phone, without detailing the reason for the arrests.

He added that one NYPD officer suffered “non-life threatening” injuries during the late night protests. Police also said that their vehicles were damaged and some trash cans were set on fire in the demonstrations.

NBC News reported that a car attempted to drive through a group of police officials in Brooklyn.

The development in New York City came after the deadly Philadelphia police shooting on Monday of Walter Wallace, 27, who was described by relatives as suffering from a mental breakdown as he was confronted by law enforcement.

It follows months of anti-racism protests that have spread across the United States since the death in May of George Floyd, an African-American who died after a Minneapolis police official knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The protests, which have sometimes turned violent, have aimed at achieving racial equality and opposing police brutality.

Philadelphia became the latest flash point in the United States on issues of race and police use of force, as Tuesday’s rallies began peacefully but grew confrontational as darkness fell, just as on the previous day.

A bystander’s video of the shooting of Wallace was posted on social media on Monday and showed him approaching two police officers who had drawn their guns and warned him to put down his knife. The officers were backing up before the camera cut briefly away as gunfire erupted and Wallace collapsed.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh, Editing by William Maclean)

As federal deployment looms, Chicago mayor calls for end of violence

By Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday called on witnesses to come forward with information about an overnight gunfight at a funeral, a day after she said she would welcome help from the FBI and other federal agencies, but not a “Portland-style deployment” of “unnamed agents” to her city’s streets.

Lightfoot spoke a day after gang members opened fire at a funeral on Chicago’s South Side and attendees fired back, injuring 15 people. Two of those shot are in critical condition, while the other 13 are expected to recover.

The mayor, a Democrat, also detailed a separate shooting on Tuesday of a 3-year old girl by two men who fired into the car she was in with her parents. The girl was shot in the head but is in stable condition, police superintendent David Brown told the same news conference.

The violent flare-up could provide fodder to President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, who have sought to promote a law-and-order message ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election. Critics say the administration is seeking to divert attention away from its widely criticized response to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the reasons he is trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in opinion polls.

Trump threatened earlier this week to send FBI and other federal agents to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, to help local authorities crack down on a surge in violence in recent weeks. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr announced a program known as Operation Legend to provide federal help to law enforcement officials in Kansas City, Missouri, where murders have spiked.

The launch of that program has coincided with the deployment of agents drawn from other federal agencies to Portland, Oregon, to protect a courthouse from weeks of protests over racial justice. In that action, unidentified federal agents have been accused of pulling protesters into unmarked vans, a possible violation of their civil rights.

Trump was scheduled to deliver remarks about Operation Legend later on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot said she would take Trump to court if he sent unidentified federal agents to her city.

“The Trump administration is not going to foolishly deploy unnamed agents to the streets of Chicago,” she said as she outlined plans for an influx of identified agents from the FBI and other agencies to combat crime. “We have information that allows us to say, at least at this point, that we don’t see a Portland-style deployment coming to Chicago.”

Chicago has seen an explosion in violence this summer. There were 116 murders over the 28 days through July 19, an increase of nearly 200 percent, police department data shows.

Police superintendent Brown blamed turf battles among the roughly 117,000 gang members in the city of 2.7 million people, where one shooting begets another in an endless cycle of revenge.

“This same cycle repeats itself over and over and over again. This cycle is fueled by street gangs, guns and drugs,” he said. “Too many people in Chicago have been touched by gun violence.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday that he told Trump that his state was able and prepared to handle a spike in crime in New York City, noting that he had not declared a public safety emergency.

“And since the state hasn’t made a declaration, I don’t see why there’s any reason why the federal government should take action,” Cuomo said in a call with reporters, adding that Trump agreed with his assessment.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump to send federal forces to more ‘Democrat’ cities

By Steve Holland and Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Monday said he would send law enforcement to more U.S. cities, as a federal crackdown on anti-racism protests in Oregon with unmarked cars and unidentified forces angered people across the country.

Trump, a Republican, cited New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, as places to send federal agents, noting the cities’ mayors were “liberal Democrats.” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot frequently blasts Trump on Twitter.

“We’re sending law enforcement,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We can’t let this happen to the cities.”

State and local leaders in Oregon, as well as members of Congress, have called for Trump to remove Department of Homeland Security secret police forces from Portland, Oregon, after videos showed unidentified federal personnel rounding up people and whisking them away in black minivans.

“Not only do I believe he is breaking the law, but he is also endangering the lives of Portlanders,” the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, tweeted, having previously called the federal presence “political theater” in an election year.

Trump, trailing in opinion polls behind Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, in June declared himself “president of law and order” and threatened to send the U.S. military into cities after sometimes violent protests and looting in the aftermath of African American ‘s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Federal agents last week began cracking down on Portland protests against police brutality and systemic racism, using tear gas to defend federal buildings and taking some activists into custody without explanation.

“They grab a lot of people and jail the leaders. These are anarchists,” Trump said of federal agents sent to the historically liberal city to quell often unruly protests.

Despite a national outcry over the tactics, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on Monday said they would not back down and would not apologize.

The state of Oregon and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued the Trump administration for unlawfully detaining Oregon residents, and some Republicans spoke out against its tactics on Monday.

“There is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will,” tweeted U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Homeland Security was making plans to deploy around 150 agents in the city this week where police defending a statue clashed with protesters on Friday.

The DHS did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington, additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York, Deborah Bloom in Portland; Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. police unions approved for millions in pandemic aid

By Reade Levinson and Chris Prentice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At least six police unions qualified for a combined total of $2 million to $4.4 million in emergency U.S. government loans intended to help small businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus lockdown, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The unions represent about 110,000 law enforcement officers in Philadelphia, Houston, New York state, Michigan and 11 Southern states.

All told, the six approved loans make up a small fraction of the program’s $521 billion in lending across 4.9 million loans as of June 30. The data released on Monday does not specify whether the loans were disbursed or if the unions will qualify for loan forgiveness.

Intended to help small companies and non-profit organizations keep their work forces employed during the coronavirus crisis, the federal Paycheck Protection Program allows employers with 500 or fewer workers hurt by the economic fallout of the pandemic to apply for a forgivable government-backed loan.

The six police unions typically receive 90% of their revenue from membership dues, according to tax records reviewed by Reuters, and thus, barring layoffs, would not be hurting for cash. All six unions have work forces of their own, providing support to members. Their combined loan applications said they sought to retain 331 jobs.

Four forces with unions that received loans – the New York State Police, Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department – told Reuters they had not laid off or furloughed any employees during the pandemic, so their unions’ dues collections should not have suffered any significant hits.

It is clear the loan program, overseen by the Small Business Administration (SBA), gave out funds with few limits on who would benefit, said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“The onus was on the SBA to ensure we’re not just throwing public funds at entities that don’t need them,” she said. “It is common sense we’d prioritize the industries that need it most, and I don’t know that’s police unions right now.”

James Miller, spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said the union sought a loan in anticipation of potential revenue losses and possible layoffs amid prison closures. The union, which represents about 26,000 employees and retirees, qualified to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000.

“Based on current revenue projections for the remainder of the year, we anticipate returning the loan, as it is the prudent thing to do,” he said, in an email to Reuters.

The other police unions approved for loans did not return repeated emails and calls seeking comment.

Qualifying for a loan of between $1 million and $2 million was the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 58,000 federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement officers in eleven states. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 14,000 active and retired Philadelphia police officers and sheriff deputies, qualified to borrow between $350,000 and $1 million.

Authorized to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000 were the Police Officers Labor Council in Michigan, which represents about 350 sheriffs and police departments; the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which represents 5,300 Houston Police Department officers; and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Home Association, a separate non-profit that maintains a lodge for union meetings.

The police unions were among at least 117 public and private sector unions that applied for loans through the program. The SBA did not release the names of recipients of loans less than $150,000.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, which represents about 900,000 members across industries including teaching, performing arts, hospitality, manufacturing and construction, said in an email Wednesday that it received $267,000 and plans to ask for loan forgiveness.

Many affiliate unions represent industries that have laid off members as a result of the coronavirus, Rick Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president, said in an email. Faced with declining dues, he said, the union decided to seek aid.

“We made the decision to apply for the loan to keep our people employed.”

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in London and Chris Prentice in Washington, D.C.)

Philadelphia refinery workers plan for uncertain future after jobs go up in smoke

FILE PHOTO: A worker leaves the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery carrying personal items, after employees were told the complex would shut down following a recent fire that caused significant damage, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Laila Kearney/File Photo

By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – At Erin Pub, a classic Irish neighborhood bar in Norwood, Pennsylvania, dozens of Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc’s unionized employees crammed around the bar on Wednesday night, toasting to their friendships after learning that day of plans to close the refinery permanently after a devastating fire less than a week earlier.

They were openly worried about what the job loss would mean for their lives and their families. The refinery, the biggest on the East Coast, employed more than 1,000 people, including more than 600 unionized workers. Most were told their jobs would end by mid-July, while others would stay for two weeks beyond that.

“I have a kid I’m about to put through college, and I have no idea how I’m going to do that now,” said one worker, who had been with the refinery for more than a decade and who asked not to be identified.

The workers, both union and non-union, are not expected to get severance packages or health benefits, dumping them into a shrinking energy workforce without a parachute. In the months leading up the closure, the company saved cash by laying off a number of salaried employees, all who received standard severance packages, two sources familiar with the company told Reuters.

“We have some people who have spent their whole careers in the refinery. It’s not just a workplace, it’s a culture,” said Ryan O’Callaghan, president of the local United Steelworkers union and an operator at the refinery.

Many had been through the plant’s ups and downs, from good years earlier this decade to a bankruptcy process last year, but the fire has left them jobless in a region that only employs about 2,000 workers in the refining industry.

“These jobs are hard to duplicate. It’s not like there are a lot of refineries around here anymore, so it’s going to be a challenge,” said Steve Bussone, 54, a union lab technician with 23 years at the refinery.

He was hoping to retire in about ten years, but the closure may delay those plans. He was not preparing to start over at his age and said the potential lack of a severance package makes the whole process that more daunting.

The June 21 fire started in a butane vat and was followed by a series of explosions that ripped through the 335,000 barrel-per-day plant, the oldest on the East Coast, which destroyed at least one key unit and threw fragments onto nearby highways.

Just four days later, Chief Executive Mark Smith said the plant would close indefinitely. The company is planning a sale, but that process, and a subsequent reopening is not likely to happen for years, if at all.

“We cannot commit that (a restart) will occur,” Smith said in a letter to the union. “As such, all layoffs are expected to be permanent.”

For some, Wednesday’s official announcement was a confirmation of what they knew was inevitable after the massive fire.

The plant banked big profits in 2013 and 2014 as it used trains to bring crude oil in from the burgeoning shale business in North Dakota. However, after a 40-year-ban on crude oil exports was ended in 2015, oil drillers found it more profitable to ship crude to U.S. Gulf-area refiners by pipeline and to export destinations.

Since then, the refinery has struggled, even after reducing its credit obligations through a 2018 bankruptcy process and having slashed worker benefits and pensions. Its cash balance had dwindled by 40% to $87.7 million in just three months, leaving it in a precarious position before the fire.

Still, the decision came as a bitter blow, as previous owner Carlyle Group paid itself out nearly $600 million in dividend-style distributions, many taken through loans against the plant’s assets, since taking over the refinery in 2012.

Rich Francis, 28, a gasoline trader at the company, was one of the 150 or so non-union employees fired on Wednesday as the company seeks to shut the refinery.

Like the others, Francis got no severance package and his family’s health benefits run out at the end of July – which will hit hard, as his wife recently had a kidney transplant that requires expensive medication daily.

“They have given me so little runway here. It’s real disappointing in how the company handled this,” Francis said.

The United Steelworkers president said the union is expecting to negotiate severance packages and benefits for union members – but also pushing to rebuild the unit so the refinery can keep running.

“That’s what we’re fighting for,” said O’Callaghan, who started with PES in 2007. “The entire refinery runs without all units on all the time.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney; additional reporting by Stephanie Kelly; writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Marguerita Choy)