HARRISBURG — More than a month after the process was first announced, there is still no timeline for when Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration will release the list of Pennsylvania businesses that received coveted waivers and were allowed to reopen during the ongoing coronavirus shutdown.
During a hearing Thursday, members of the Republican-controlled state Senate lambasted the secretive nature of the waiver process, arguing that the state was deciding the fate of businesses without providing any transparency, leading to confusion and inconsistencies even among businesses in the same industry.
“With such an unprecedented situation comes unprecedented decisions, with no handbook or established guidelines,” Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) said. “Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration that waivers were issued and denied with no basis, and especially with no transparency.”
In March, Wolf shuttered most of the state’s economy in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But in a nod to the complexity of the situation, the governor opened up a waiver process to allow businesses to make the case for why they should be allowed to reopen.
Those decisions were handled by employees of the Department of Community and Economic Development. But the administration has rebuked or ignored a host of media requests for the criteria used to make those decisions as well as a list of waivers approved, denied, or approved and then revoked.
Under the governor’s emergency order, state agencies have largely stopped processing public records requests.
The stakes of the waiver process cannot be overstated, as the state’s decisions affect the livelihoods and potential safety of business owners, employees, and their families, and could mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy.
Of the 42,000 applications submitted, 22,000 were granted a waiver or informed that they were already considered “life-sustaining,” state officials said. The secretary of the economic development agency, Dennis M. Davin, told lawmakers the process did not favor certain businesses and insisted the 45-person team made decisions in good faith.
“It is not a perfect system," Davin said. "We never said it was a perfect system. It is not something we would have ever imagined we would have to do.”
State officials have on several occasions reviewed and revoked waivers after being contacted by journalists. For example, after questions from Spotlight PA about how Wolf’s former cabinet supply company qualified as life-sustaining, the department revoked the waiver and said it should close. The company kept operating, claiming it did not need the waiver. In a separate report, the state revoked a waiver for a playground equipment company after inquiries from Spotlight PA.
“When you have a business next door that does the same thing you do getting a waiver, and you don’t, it causes a lot of mistrust and a lack of confidence,” Sen. Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said.
Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Adams) pressed Davin to release the list, saying the process seemed “random.”
“It puts a lot of power in your hands, as well as the governor’s, picking who can stay open and who can’t,” Mastriano said. “Despite the best intentions here, I think it’s a dangerous thing, having so much power in one place.”
Davin said the department is working on releasing information to the legislature, but is not yet prepared to do it.
“We don’t want to hold back or hide anything. We want to give you good information,” he said. “That’s what we are working on doing right now. We are putting together this information in the best way we can. I’m trying to do something that makes sense to all Pennsylvanians.”
On Wednesday, Wolf released a plan to begin easing coronavirus restrictions on a region-by-region basis based on a number of criteria, including a declining case count. Officials have said robust testing and contact tracing will also be necessary, but have not provided details about how they will achieve those goals.
Health Secretary Rachel Levine said the Department of Health is working to expand criteria for testing, meaning people with mild symptoms or a case in their household may be able to get tested moving forward.
David “Randy” Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said there are plans for drug stores to provide rapid testing with a doctor’s prescription, but said testing cannot be significantly increased until there are enough reagents and other supplies needed.
“The challenges are, the machines are really designed for point-of-care testing,” Padfield said. “Unfortunately, the supplies and the technology is just not there yet.”