Since its outset, the COVID-19 public health emergency also has been a governance crisis. From the Trump dministration’s deliberate “downplaying” of the pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans while sickening more than 7 million, to the widely variable responses by state governments, COVID-19 has illuminated governance problems.
Now, an audit released by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has found the Wolf administration’s handling of a business waiver program early in the crisis, by which some businesses had to close while similar enterprises remained open, was marked by inconsistency and unfairness.
Part of the problem was that as the pandemic advanced, federal guidance changed.
“The waiver program appears to be a subjective process built on shifting sands of changing guidance, which led to significant confusion among business owners,” DePasquale told reporters Tuesday.
The Department of Homeland Security, for example, listed 14 business sectors that it considered “essential” but left it to states to devise their own categories. Pennsylvania identified 21 “essential” business sectors and established the waiver program by which businesses deemed nonessential could appeal.
There were some obvious inconsistencies. Big-box home supply stores with garden centers were deemed essential while small, local garden centers had to close, for example.
And, according to the audit, decisions sometimes were arbitrary or contradictory, to the point that some businesses with more than one application were approved on one and denied on another. An Allegheny County construction company filed applications for 10 similar projects and was denied for some, approved for others and advised that it didn’t need a waiver for another.
The audit found that 171 businesses received waivers after first being denied; 141 applicants were denied waivers, but later were told they never needed one; 73 received waivers that later were revoked, and 48 were told they didn’t need a waiver but then were ordered to close.
As the pandemic slogs on, and as experts say it is unlikely to be the last of its kind, the Legislature and administration should work jointly on a set of reliable emergency closure standards, making sure they are rooted in science and expert analysis, rather than politics.