EDITORIAL: Shine light on waivers

Dispatch Editorial Board
York City Police officer Michael Rykowski checks a locked door at a business on West Philadelphia Street while on patrol Monday, March 23, 2020. He and other police, fire and property management representatives were checking that businesses, schools and organizations were complying with state and city COVID-19 closure orders. Bill Kalina photo

Just release the list, Gov. Wolf.

The appearance of impropriety has undermined Tom Wolf's otherwise appropriate shutdown of businesses throughout Pennsylvania. Wolf, acting on advice from medical experts, is no doubt slowing the spread of the coronavirus by clamping down on business and telling people to stay in their homes.

But the questions have mounted since he first issued his business shutdown in mid-March. That's because not every business can be shuttered in a health crisis. Society still needs health care clinics, grocery stores and gas stations if it's to respond to a growing crisis.

Wolf rightly exempted those businesses and not-for-profits from his shutdown.

Fair enough.

But the Wolf administration has since granted waivers to about 5,000 businesses, freeing them from the shutdown order, state officials said. Those businesses were all originally deemed "non-life-sustaining" by the administration's analysts and attorneys.

And then the pressure came.  

Lawmakers throughout the state admitted that they actively lobbied for businesses within their respective districts. Favorite golf courses of high-ranking members were suddenly reopened. And, as of this week, the governor's former business in York, Wolf Home Products, was initially granted a waiver and then thumbed its nose at state regulators when that waiver was pulled after the media started asking questions.

All the while, Wolf's administration has refused to release the list of waivers. Administration officials have said how many waivers have been dolled out. But they've refused to actually name those those businesses, even though such a list clearly exists.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his 2020-21 budget address in the House of Representatives as Speaker Mike Turzai, left, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman look on, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa. Photo by Joe Hermitt/PennLive/The Patriot-News via AP

Making things worse, state officials are using the coronavirus to dismiss lawful Right to Know requests, saying the lack of staff makes complying impossible.

One can simultaneously acknowledge the extraordinary circumstances facing Pennsylvania right now, while still finding the total lack of transparency on display from the Wolf administration troubling. 

Meanwhile, firms without friends in high places are suffering. On Thursday, The York Dispatch reported on Clark Shoes Distribution Center in Hanover, which laid off 121 employees due to the coronavirus lockdown, company officials said.

All told, more than 800,000 Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployement insurance — a state record — since the shutdown was initiated.

Even without the list, what's clear is that some businesses are hurting. So, too, are throngs of workers hoping to pay the rent. A drive through downtown York City provides a glimpse at the scale of the economic crisis caused by the shutdown of restaurants, theaters and shops.

All are owned by someone. Many employ others. And every day, the scale of the economic devastation becomes more obvious.

But that's only true for those businesses either deemed not essential or not granted dispensation through a murky, questionable process deserving of a thorough public vetting.