From helicopter makers and asphalt-paving companies to labor unions and animal shelters, nearly 1,500 Philadelphia-area employers are among more than 6,000 statewide given exemptions to reopen after Gov. Tom Wolf in March ordered “non-essential” employers to shut, to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The state released the list late Friday after weeks of requests by reporters. But although 6,100 exemptions were granted, 37,000 more requests were not approved. Businesses had until April 1 to apply.
Philadelphia, home to one-eighth of Pennsylvanians, got less than its share: just 237 waivers, or 4% of the total. That’s fewer than the number granted each of Bucks, Chester or Montgomery Counties, which have less than half its population. That was also less than half as many as Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, and only a few more than Westmoreland County, which has less than a quarter of Philadelphia’s population.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said he had no quarrel with Gov. Wolf’s decisions on waivers.
“I think the governor has been very cooperative and amenable and discussionary with all of us in the region,” Kenney said Monday during a news conference. “There’s nothing worse than jumping the gun and wind up opening up too soon and falling back with a surge that will kill more people and take us longer to recover.”
Small retailers, however, have been outraged that they have had to close even as larger competitors such as box stores have stayed open. Many owners have complained about the lack of guidance from the state, and some have threatened to open without a waiver, fearing that they will lose their businesses if the shutdown continues.
For his part, Wolf reiterated Monday that businesses needed to heed the state when it came to reopening. He warned owners who opened on their own accord, saying they could lose state licenses and put their insurance coverage at risk “because insurance does not cover things that happen to businesses breaking the law.”
Many of the initial waivers were granted to area construction contractors. In any event, such firms later were given permission to return to work in larger numbers anyway once the state eased rules May 1 for contractors who showed that workers met safety and medical guidelines.
Other than hospitals and other projects that were exempt from the start, "the construction industry was gone for awhile, but we took Pennsylvania’s May 1 return date as a ’let’s start reopening’ date,” said Frank Mahoney, spokesman for the 42,000-member Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, one of the largest Philadelphia-based unions.
Mahoney says Pennsylvania and New Jersey had imposed stricter anti-coronavirus limits than their neighbors (the council also has members in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, part of North Carolina, and Puerto Rico).
Leah Stallings, owner of the Aark Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Chalfont, told how she got a waiver: “Every wildlife center had a panic back in March when Gov. Wolf posted that original list, and it said the only animal businesses that could stay open were ‘Animal Production.’
“We immediately filled out the waiver request form they put out with that document. I wrote that we take in thousands of orphaned and injured wild animals and rehabilitate them back to the wild. If we were ordered to close our doors, we had hundreds of animals on the property that would have suffered. It’s dangerous.”
Waivers were granted — to her and at least a few other rehab centers. “We set up an outside contact-less animal drop-off point.” She supplied staff with veterinary-style protective gear. But not all the other centers reopened: Some have been unable to obtain staff.
Likewise, the May 1 construction easing didn’t reopen convention centers or other union employers still shut by coronavirus concerns, the Carpenters’ Mahoney noted.
Indeed, as the economy slows, state permission is just one obstacle to reopening. Aramark, the giant cafeteria operator, is among the Philadelphia businesses granted a waiver by the state, but many of the sports arenas and colleges where it operates remain closed and its workers there are laid off.
Frustration remains very high among small businesses that have seen larger rivals at least partly reopen, said Guy Ciarrocchi, president of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry.
Business groups “have begged to be state government’s partners" in writing clearer guidelines for what should open, "but it hasn’t happened,” said Ciarrocchi. The waiver list “was created more than a month ago. There is no listing of who was denied. Why can one dry cleaner or pet store open, and not another? It brings more distrust.”
“In the beginning, we urged patience and [were] against lawsuits,” he added. “Now it seems futile.” It’s hardest for "the thousands of tiny stores — shoe repairs, dog groomers, hubcap sales, you name it. They didn’t get an opportunity at PPP,” the Small Business Administration’s “forgivable” bank-loan program.
Their competitors, the “big-box chain stores, can stay open; they can bring a microwave into your trunk, and the State Store can put a bottle of Jack Daniels in your trunk. Why can’t every appliance store in the state put the microwave or blender or toaster in the trunk? They aren’t telling us.”
A spokesperson for Wolf didn’t immediately respond to questions. Ciarrocchi said small businesses seeking guidance are sent to a multi-page posting at Pennsylvania’s “Reopening" Web page.
“The first half-page, it refers you to five prior executive orders you should read. And then there’s a series of links to CDC or other guidance. Can the restaurant owners, can the web-design firm get their answers” that way? "The government needs to engage people here.”
But no state appears to be offering that level of service. Although some differed on what businesses they considered essential or life-sustaining, some such as Pennsylvania offered waivers after announcing more extensive shutdowns, and others didn’t order shutdowns at all.
Shannon Farmer, a partner at Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr LLP, said state government simply have been unable to provide individualized guidance to businesses.
The waiver period is over, she noted. “Now we are looking at a question of regional reopening” when industries are cleared by states to go back in business under set conditions, rather than individual businesses announcing they are ready.
And it’s not just up to states. CDC and OSHA guidelines -- some of which have tightened in response to the virus -- may not be mandatory, “but they may be important for liability protections," Farmer added.
Already in Pennsylvania "we have started to see lawsuits for wrongful deaths against companies by families claiming they were put at risk by the employer not providing safe working environments.”