(The Center Square) – More than 500 Pennsylvania businesses that appealed Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close amid the COVID-19 pandemic received decisions from the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED) that later changed.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called the waiver request process “subjective,” saying it engendered “significant confusion among business owners.” He is calling on Wolf “to provide details on its communication with legislators and lobbyists about waiver requests,” he said in a news release.
On March 19, Wolf ordered most businesses to close to slow COVID-19, and DCED handled more than 43,380 requests appealing the governor’s COVID-19 closure order. DePasquale said it seems the guidelines changed during the process, prompting some business owners to take their complaints to legislators.
“The waiver program appears to be a subjective process built on shifting sands of changing guidance, which led to significant confusion among business owners,” DePasquale said during a news conference.
“To be clear, our analysis is this was not a level playing field for businesses across Pennsylvania,” DePasquale said. “Some smaller businesses may not have used the correct buzzwords in their waiver justification, or they just didn’t ask their ... legislator for assistance to get a waiver.”
The audit found 171 applications were changed from “No” to “Yes,” 151 were changed from “No” to “Not Required,” 73 were changed from “Yes” to “No” and 48 were changed from “Not Required” to “No.” The audit revealed at least 101 businesses that received changing responses submitted more than one application; at least one company filed eight waiver requests, while another submitted 10.
Waivers were apparently issued inconsistently, and responses depended on who at DCED handled the request. Businesses using some “buzzwords” – such as “life-sustaining” or “PPE,” an acronym for personal protective equipment – had a better chance of securing a waiver.
DePasquale said his review remains ongoing.
In a statement, Casey Smith, communications director for DCED, said the agency “did not make waiver decisions based upon pre-determinations or pressure from the governor’s office or other outside influences.”
“The exemption process demonstrated our commitment to Pennsylvania’s businesses to ensure that businesses offering life-sustaining services were able to remain operational,” Smith added.
But, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said the governor is responsible for the program’s shortcomings.
“This travesty falls directly at the feet of our Governor since we learn the Department of Economic and Community Development while running the program, had no say in what factors were used to determine what was life-sustaining,” Gordon Denlinger, NFIB’s Pennsylvania state director, said in a statement. “…This damning report begs the question, how do all the small businesses hurt by this unfair program recoup their losses and regain their trust in Gov. Wolf’s leadership?”
Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, said the governor stacked “the deck against mom-and-pop businesses simply looking to continue operating safely.”
“The toll on lives and livelihoods from this administration’s handling of COVID-19 continues to mount,” Benninghoff said in a statement. “Sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Wolf administration’s non-transparent, go-it-alone approach to managing this virus has done severe harm to Pennsylvania.”