State Auditor General Tim DeFoor last week confirmed what we all knew: State officials used a flawed, uneven, unfair and in some cases unjustifiable process to determine which Pennsylvania businesses could remain open during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeFoor, a Republican, finished off the review of the Department of Economic Development’s program initiated by his predecessor Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, like Gov. Tom Wolf.
The Wolf administration quickly rolled out a terribly flawed system. No one knew who could stay open, why one company was forced to close while a similar business remained open. It was a mess from the start.
In some regard that is somewhat understandable. State officials were trying to act quickly. Within days of the initial mitigation orders in March 2020, the Wolf administration announced that non-essential businesses statewide should close their doors, with a working list of 150 different business categories, including grocery and convenience stores, auto repair shops, pharmacies, medical facilities, trucking and food production that could remain open.
But the decisions made when the waiver process began were inconsistent.
According to the review, the state received 42,380 requests for waivers to operate during the business closings from March to June in 2020. More than 7,000 waivers were granted. At one point, more than 2,800 waiver requests were coming in each day, a spokeswoman for DCED said.
That is a lot to handle, which is why a concrete, black and white baseline should have been in place from the time the first waiver came in the door.
“This audit revealed a flawed process that provided inconsistent answers to business owners and caused confusion,” DeFoor said. “While the pandemic certainly presented some unique challenges, the process was hastily assembled on the fly, unevenly administered and should be reformed before anything like it is ever used again.”
These decisions had life-altering impacts on hundreds of small businesses across the Valley and the commonwealth. Livelihoods were changed forever with businesses that could have, probably should have, stayed open now permanently closed. Downtowns will never be the same.
DeFoor is spot on when he said the process must be reviewed and reformed now. The hope is something like COVID-19 never happens again, but if it does, business owners and workers need to have confidence the state’s reaction will be responsible, consistent and fair.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Managing Editor Bill Bowman.