By one of the tragic yardsticks we use now for measuring strong political leadership — the number of people dying — Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration can be considered to be doing well. Pennsylvania’s per capita death rate by the coronavirus stands at 31 per 100,000; while certainly too high, it’s a reassuring number when compared with New York’s 140 deaths per 100,000 and New Jersey’s 107.
And while Wolf is far from the telegenic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, he has, for the most part, provided a calm and consistent presence throughout the crisis that most people find reassuring. A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll revealed that 72% of Pennsylvania adults approve of the governor’s handling of the crisis.
Wolf moved early to shut down the state, and unlike President Donald Trump, he has relied heavily on medical advice, particularly from Health Secretary Rachel Levine, to guide his major decisions. That means his decisions tend to favor health and life over commerce.
While that’s the right call, that priority has infuriated some across the state who are protesting his reopening plan. The plan itself outlines clear criteria for opening counties, but the criteria for deciding which businesses can and can’t operate under the shutdown isn’t so clear. Businesses whose requests for waivers allowing them to operate have been denied have joined a growing chorus demanding more transparency into why such decisions are being made. (That hue and cry wasn’t helped when in March, Wolf’s former cabinet business was allowed to continue to operate; when the governor was questioned by Spotlight PA, the waiver was revoked.)
Some Republican lawmakers issued a subpoena for a more detailed release of business waiver information, which Wolf has rejected. The administration did release a more extensive list of businesses that were granted waivers, but many businesses complained their waivers were revoked right before the list was released.
Throughout, the process and criteria for granting waivers, and reasons for rejecting or rescinding them, has not been transparent.
Business owners are not the only people entitled to this information. Pennsylvanians need to know the underlying criteria for when they can start partaking in aspects of life and commerce that have been shut down. It can give the public confidence that there is a set of rational criteria for decisions over what is safe and what isn’t.
Fueled in part by the confusion over waivers, many counties threatened to defy Wolf’s reopening plan and open on their own. Wolf punched back, threatening to cut counties off from federal funding and punish those counties. Many counties have backpedaled from their defiant stance.
Shutting off access to information can be dangerous at any time — especially during a health crisis. That’s why Wolf’s lack of support for a bill that would broaden access to public records during a disaster declaration is also troubling.
In the kind of crisis we’re currently experiencing, information is the best vaccine against confusion and fear. Wolf should continue his commitment to making decisions driven by science. But those decisions will be better understood and accepted if he commits equally to transparency.