Pa. coronavirus response stymies freedom of information requests

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)

Processing Right-to-Know Law requests from reporters and other citizens statewide seeking to better understand the effects of the state's COVID-19 mitigation efforts has come to a halt.

The new procedure was detailed to The York Dispatch after it last week filed a Right-to-Know request seeking details of business waivers approved by the state Department of Community and Economic Development — information the department has refused to release.

Now, information that can only be acquired via the Right-to-Know process will remain unknown until April 30 at the earliest, when state offices are slated to reopen their physical locations, according to an email from the Governor’s Office of General Counsel.

"All agencies are prioritizing COVID-19 response efforts at this time," said Rachel Wrigley, spokeswoman for the DCED.

More:All of Pennsylvania now under orders to stay home

More:COVID-19 Pa. cases jump by nearly 1,000 in a day, 11 new deaths

Details surrounding the waivers, which are meant to give businesses a chance to reopen after Wolf’s orders to close non-life-sustaining businesses last month, are scarce.

Information that has been released by the DCED has been limited to basic numbers.

For example, as of March 30, the DCED had processed 63% of 30,992 waiver applications, based on an analysis of numbers supplied by Wrigley.

Just less than 5,000 of those waivers have been approved. Roughly 7,700 have been denied, and more than 6,700 were submitted by businesses that didn’t require waivers in the first place.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has asked all nonessential businesses in Pennsylvania to close.

>>Like what you’re reading? Not a subscriber? Click here for full access to The York Dispatch’s hard-hitting news, local sports and entertainment.

DCED officials have said they will release more details about the waivers "following the conclusion of the review process."

The waiver process itself has raised questions.

Republican lawmakers in York County have said they've continued to lobby on behalf of businesses in their respective districts to procure waivers.

Wolf's own former business, Wolf Home Products, was granted a waiver. The administration later rescinded it upon further review, but Spotlight PA has reported the company's doors are still open.

The administration's choice to delay processing Right-to-Know requests comes despite "extremely strong recommendations" from the state Office of Open Records to continue the process, at least prioritizing those most pertinent to emergencies.

"The Right-to-Know Law is a law," said Erik Arneson, director of OOR. "It is not optional. It is in my view extremely important, especially in times of crisis, to be as transparent as possible."

However, in the case of the DCED, at least, Arneson said it isn't ignoring the law, given the fact the agency has had to reallocate resources and reassess its priorities as waiver applications flow in.

In general, the state law is unprepared for “completely unprecedented” circumstances such as these, said Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania News Association.

“There’s no question it’s problematic from the media perspective. The RTK law is an important tool in gathering news,” Melewsky said. “But in the current situation, if there’s no staff in the office to answer the requests, they’re not required to do it under the circumstances.”

As of noon Wednesday, confirmed cases in Pennsylvania approached 6,000, with 79 cases in York County.

The efforts to mitigate the spread amid mounting cases — specifically mandated business closures  — have already taken an unprecedented toll on businesses and workers.

The Department of Labor and Industry has received nearly 900,000 applications for unemployment benefits since mid-March, when the efforts began.

Some local businesses have also felt the effects.

Clarks Shoes Distribution Center in Hanover, for example, announced last month that it would lay off 121 employees because of the economic impact of Wolf's orders.

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