PA POST – When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered businesses to shut down their physical operations in March, Zach Schrum, owner of Schrum Family Roofing in Horsham, Montgomery County, applied to the state for a waiver to stay open. He argued both that roof repair is essential and that his company could operate safely and in accordance with social distancing guidelines to minimize the potential for spreading coronavirus.
His request was denied.
But weeks later, after Schrum learned that another local roofing business had been granted an unconditional waiver, he decided to submit a new request. This time, he received word from the Department of Community and Economic Development that his business could partially reopen, restricted to performing emergency repairs.
On May 1, all construction operations, which includes roofers, were permitted to resume statewide so long as they followed social distancing guidelines. Last week, DCED sent an informational bulletin about the waiver process that Schrum said he thought might mean that his waiver had been rescinded, though he continued to operate because all construction is now permitted.
Schrum said he has no idea why he received conflicting messages from the state and expressed frustration that some roofers received waivers while others did not.
“Government was playing God,” he said. “They were saying roofing company A can work, roofing company B can’t, but they didn’t provide any insight as to why.”
“The whole process was extremely confusing,” he said. “It was still a mystery about what’s essential and what’s not.”
Armor Roofing in Lancaster had a similar experience to Schrum. The company applied twice for a waiver. After being denied outright the first time, the state approved a second waiver but restricted the business to performing only emergency repairs. Owner Dan Neff and his wife Stacy said in an interview that they left the process feeling frustrated and a little confused.
“We had been told from friends that there were other roofers that got the waiver and were good to go, but that was not our experience,” Dan said. “We also saw a number of people that were, I guess, blatantly disregarding and going ahead doing the work. We didn’t feel comfortable doing that.”
Representatives for several roofing companies who received waivers declined to talk on the record, though one based in Adams County said he argued to the state only that his business did not require physical proximity to anyone else and that he should thus be allowed to open. He said he received an unconditional waiver.
Stacy Neff said that the letter denying Armor Roofing’s waiver application seemed like a form letter, which made it difficult to understand why other roofers might have received waivers while their business did not.
“It was really frustrating not realizing their rationale,” she said.
“To me, it felt like it was an insider’s game, like someone had to know somebody to get one,” said Dan. “It does make you wonder: Is there somebody I should have talked to that I didn’t know?”
Eventually, after an early April windstorm damaged homes in Lancaster County, the Neffs decided that doing those repairs constituted an emergency. They restarted their business. And since May 1, the Neffs said they have been operating close to normally, albeit with precautions such as packing their lunch, not interacting with customers, and staying six feet apart when at the job site, measures that they said they told the state they would have used had they been granted a waiver in the first place.
The Department of Community and Economic Development has said all along that the only criterion in reviewing business waiver applications was “whether the specific operations described were life-sustaining or necessary to support a life-sustaining business,” spokesperson Casey Smith said. In the case of roofers, Smith said, “Many businesses sought limited exemptions to engage in operations such as emergency repairs. Exemptions may have been granted for those purposes, while businesses that sought to conduct business as usual may not have received exemptions.”
According to lists released by DCED last week, 65 businesses whose names mention “roofing” were granted waivers statewide, while 98 were denied.
The roofers’ experiences illustrate what critics say was the Wolf administration’s scattershot process in granting waivers to Pennsylvania businesses. In some cases, waivers were granted based on whether a business engages in life-sustaining activity and other times based on whether a business can follow social distancing guidelines — two very different criteria.
The inconsistent granting of waivers was not limited to roofers.
Scott Edwards, who owns Scott’s Floral, Gift & Greenhouses in Danville, Montour County, said he received a waiver to keep his floral shop running. Edwards’s business also has a greenhouse, which didn’t require a waiver to stay open because it is considered a life-sustaining enterprise. But Edwards said he thinks his flower shop received a waiver because he implemented social distancing procedures including contactless transactions and required mask-wearing. He applied for a waiver the night the governor’s closure order was announced and received approval to keep operating the next morning.
“We do not allow anyone into our store, and we have been doing touchless delivery,” he said.
Albanese Garden Center in Wind Gap, Northampton County, though, was denied a waiver entirely. In a brief phone call, owner Steve Albanese said that his main concern is that big box stores were able to open, which crowded out opportunities for family-owned businesses like his. He has now been able to open on a limited basis, and he said that customers have been loyal and cooperative with social distancing guidelines.
“The customers have been very loyal to us, and they’re coming back,” he said. “Customers are all wearing their required stuff that they need to wear. We’re wearing ours, we’re wearing gloves. We’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing.”
Still, missing several weeks of prime planting season while stores like Wal-Mart and Lowe’s were able to stay open has been disconcerting for the fourth-generation family business.
“It’s just hard to run a business,” Albanese said, noting that even now that he has been able to partially reopen, he still must limit the number of people in the store and follow other public health guidelines. “It’s very inconvenient, but we’re doing it, and people are working with it and they’re understanding.”
Smith said that all businesses that received waivers had to follow public health guidance from the Department of Health and the CDC such that “a business asserting that it was capable of maintaining CDC distancing guidance is not sufficient to establish that a business was life-sustaining or necessary to support a life sustaining business or function.”
But, she added, “Shops that sought to conduct only online and telephone delivery orders may have been granted exemptions, while other retail establishments that sought to offer in person services did not.”
To Stacy Neff, although the process was frustrating, she understands that the state was adopting on the fly.
“In their defense, I think this was new to everybody. I don’t think they had a protocol,” she said.
Still, her husband Dan said, the process was confusing and seemed inconsistent.
“I would say that, definitely, that the process was opaque,” he said. “We did not know who to talk to, and who could help us out.”
PA Post is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom that covers politics and policy in Pennsylvania. Read their reporting at PaPost.org.