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Wolf admin eases business restrictions, 'not walking back' orders

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania speaks at a new conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters where he said he was ordering schools and other facilities to close in a suburban Philadelphia county, Montgomery County, that has been hard-hit by the COVID-19, Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

Gov. Tom Wolf's administration over the past week has revised which businesses are ordered to close under COVID-19 mitigation efforts, but it has contended it has not "walked back" the order or caved to outside pressure.

The assertion comes as Wolf on multiple occasions relaxed his order following lawsuits and pressure from state lawmakers. Some accountants, manufacturing companies, and even gun stores — with some restrictions — have reopened.

"We are not walking back any of the initial orders. The Wolf administration's highest priority is protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvanians," said Rachel Wrigley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

More:York County business tied to Gov. Tom Wolf closed after questions

More:York-area hospitals ill-equipped as COVID-19 cases spike in Pa., analysis estimates

Earlier this month, Wolf ordered all "non-life-sustaining" businesses to close, prompting forceful backlash from Republican lawmakers and business owners alike, who claimed there was not enough preparation and the move would throttle business profits.

Life-sustaining businesses exempted under the order include hospitals, pharmacies, food production and farming, the postal service, gas stations and grocery stores. 

To create the list, which has been amended as recently as Tuesday, the administration used the U.S. Labor Department's North American Industry Classification System to determine what was deemed essential, officials said.

It then "aligned the guidance" with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's recommendations.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, vocally opposed the decision because it lacked clarity, saying "confusion leads to chaos."

Since then, however, it seems as though the administration realized it hadn't done enough preparation, Phillips-Hill said, adding she has worked with 160 businesses since the order to help determine what meets the definition of "life-sustaining."

“I would say that yes, I think they realized there was a lot of confusion going on," she said. "And I think that from my point of view, there was not a significant enough understanding of supply chains.”

Wolf's administration has maintained that the decision was constitutional, given that the state's Emergency Management Services Code grants him "extraordinary" powers upon a declaration of a disaster emergency.

The state Supreme Court has upheld the order, including its application to gun shops. But Wolf quietly allowed the gun shops to reopen anyway because the administration found it "appropriate to update its guidance," officials said.

As the "life-sustaining list" itself changes, waivers are also being allocated to businesses that can argue that they, too, are essential to the lives of Pennsylvanians.

The state has approved at least 2,400 waivers and denied at least 2,100 since the order, according to DCED.

"DCED is carefully reviewing the waivers to ensure that they meet the guidance; there is no outside influence from legislators and special interests," Wrigley said.

Lawmakers are also doing their fair share of lobbying to procure waivers for businesses in their districts.

State Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said that his office has worked diligently to reopen businesses. Many of the waivers have come from home builders, some of whom have reported being successful in their applications.

The Wolf administration’s updates to the non-life-sustaining business edict show the plan wasn’t well thought out, Saylor said.

 “It wasn’t coordinated very well,” Saylor said. “I don’t think the governor is wrong in trying to do what he did, but the DCED should have taken a different approach in some cases.”

Some examples of the administration overlooking industries that are actually essential include coal miners, whose work helps provide electricity, and manufacturers who make masks but couldn't get supplies.

The Wolf administration has, however, done a solid job of working with lawmakers and their constituents who wish to receive a waiver, Saylor said.

It is expected that the list of businesses getting waivers from the administration will continue to reopen shops.

WellSpan's second drive-thru coronavirus testing site in York County is open at the York Expo Center, Friday, March 20, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But the shutdown order has already taken a toll on workers across the state, as unemployment has skyrocketed — a trend that has been mirrored nationwide. 

Since March 15 alone, 650,000 unemployment claims were filed in Pennsylvania, according to officials.

Nationwide, there were nearly 3.3 million filed claims in the past week, the most ever in that time period, The New York Times reported.

There were 2,218 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and six new virus-related deaths in Pennsylvania as of Friday at noon, continuing the steep upward trajectory, reported the state Department of Health.

There were 531 new positive tests from the day before as expanded testing capabilities continue to uncover cases at an increased rate. The death toll in the state was up to 22.

York County reported eight new cases, bringing the total up to 29 since the outbreak began. There have been no reported virus-related deaths.

As of Friday, there had been 553,000 known cases of coronavirus worldwide, killing more than 25,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

More than 86,000 cases had been confirmed in the U.S. — the most confirmed cases of any country in the world — with the death toll exceeding 1,300.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.