While Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration deserve both praise and criticism for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the commonwealth, Wolf’s handling of the state’s business waiver process in early spring remains especially questionable and troublesome.

This week, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, was heavily critical of the state program that determined which businesses were able to operate — deemed “life-sustaining” — during the governor’s shutdown. DePasquale, a Democrat like Gov. Wolf, likened the program to a “Keystone Kops routine.”

Wolf aggressively acted in late March and April in an effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, including creating a list of life-sustaining businesses that were permitted to stay open.

Almost immediately, the program, overseen by the Department of Community and Economic Development, drew criticism for a lack of consistency, with one business staying open while a nearly identical operation was shut down.

“The waiver program appeared to be a subjective process built on shifting sands of changing guidance, which led to significant confusion among business owners,” DePasquale said.

According to The Associated Press, DePasquale said guidelines were “formulated by the governor’s office and changed repeatedly; the decision to grant or deny a waiver often depended on which staffer was making the decision; and, for more than 500 businesses, the department changed its waiver decisions without ever giving a reason why, rescinding some approvals while approving others that had been rejected.”

That screams inconsistency and with inconsistency comes legitimate questions of fairness.

Neil Weaver, executive Deputy Secretary of DCED, said during testimony in a lawsuit about the waiver program that the department “changed the definition of ‘life-sustaining’ and ‘non-life-sustaining’ some 10 times from March to May — including after the state stopped accepting waiver requests, leaving shuttered businesses that thought they met the revised program requirements no way to reopen.” 

While DePasquale’s audit has not found political considerations played a role in which businesses received waivers and who were denied, the inconsistent and changing guidance were and still remain troubling. Clearly, the optics of the program were terrible.

Gov. Wolf’s intent was on the right track. But the process was hastily thrown together, changed on the go and inconsistent from the beginning. 

Some businesses never recovered or reopened after the shutdown. When “subjective” decisions are made like these, someone needs to be held accountable and answer for who, how and why winners and losers were chosen.

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.

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