KEYSTONE CROSSROADS – After an outcry from the business community and media outlets over a lack of transparency and facing subpoenas from GOP lawmakers, Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development released a list of businesses granted exemptions from the state’s coronavirus shutdown order Friday evening.
Gov. Wolf’s administration faced criticism that its waiver process seemed arbitrary and its decision making was opaque.
The information released Friday was less than GOP leaders sought, omitting the administration’s emails, notes and detailed waiver applications.
DCED received nearly 43,000 applications for waivers and approved more than 6,000 before shutting down the application process on April 3, according to a press release from the department. The state issued 12,826 denials and 11,635 businesses were told that their request did not require an exemption.
Philadelphia received 237 waivers, Delaware County 170, Bucks County 346, Chester 266 and Montgomery County 459.
Allegheny County received the highest number of business waivers with 671, and Forest County the fewest, with two.
“We’re encouraged the list was provided, but it doesn’t answer many of the questions” lawmakers and the businesses reaching out to them have had, said Pennsylvania House GOP spokesperson Mike Straub.
Many of the businesses given waivers appear to deal directly with health care or infrastructure needs. Others didn’t have such a clear connection — at least at first.
‘Unprecedented times brought about unprecedented practices’
Indian Valley Scuba might not seem like an ideal candidate for a waiver.
The Montgomery County-based company bills itself as the area’s leading source for scuba training and “exotic travel adventures.”
Owner David Valaika said the company also services high-pressure cylinders used by the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, a service it said convinced Wolf’s administration to let them stay open.
“Police and rescue teams are certainly essential, so our support for these industries is critical,” Valaika said. “We can’t teach scuba classes because of social distancing…and we don’t have access to any swimming pools.”
Joe Brennan Productions, a Philadelphia-based videography service that shoots weddings and corporate events, also received a waiver to re-open.
Brennan said the process was fairly easy.
“I just sent them an email and let them know and that was about it,” he said.
In an interview with Keystone Crossroads, Brennan said most of his business is with just one client: St. Bede the Venerable, a church in Holland, Pennsylvania. Brennan helps the church record its Sunday service to post afterward on its Facebook page.
“This way people can enjoy mass who can no longer go,” Brennan said. “I am not shooting anything that involves getting together a group of people.”
iBeach Club Spa and Rejuvenation Lounge bills itself as “A one stop location for ALL your Spa & Wellness needs!”
The business was set to re-open in a new location in Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood in April, said owner Joseph Cuervo. The pandemic made that impossible, but the business was able to get a waiver by pitching the ultraviolet light equipment it normally uses to clean towels to disinfect masks, Cuervo said.
Cuervo said he’s disinfected masks for just half a dozen people so far. He said the spa is not currently operational.
“It is…true that it is still unknown what the best way is to disinfect masks in that, in reality, masks should be worn once and discarded,” Cuervo said via text message. “So, unprecedented times brought about unprecedented practices.”
Part of the outcry from businesses over the process was the seemingly arbitrary nature of who was awarded an exemption — was it just about who made a stronger pitch?
Denny Antrilli, owner of Antrilli Florist in Turtle Creek, southeast of Pittsburgh, said he appealed to state evaluators’ empathy.
“I put in there that we’re in a smaller community that has a lot of funeral services and the people are in a state where they need our service to help comfort them,” he said.
Still, large gatherings are forbidden and funeral attendance is limited, so Antrilli said he’s had to lay off his three-person staff even with the waiver.
Recognizable Pennsylvania brands as Crayola in Northampton County and Zippo in McKean County also received waivers. Neither company immediately returned a request for comment.
Other potentially eyebrow raising waivers include one for a comic book shop in Bucks County and a taxidermist in Adams County.
When asked how the business obtained a waiver, the woman who answered the phone at Jerry’s Taxidermy in Abbottstown said: “How [else] are we going to pay our bills?”
She declined to elaborate further.
GOP leaders vowed to keep pushing for more information.
“It shows disrespect for the legislature,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre). “We will continue to work to get the information so it can be reviewed.”
He said attorneys would review their options over the weekend. One possible next step could be asking the court to enforce the subpoenas, he said.
“The governor has not been cooperative, as he’s chosen to hide this information,” said Corman.
In its press release, DCED defended its role in processing and evaluating waiver applications during the pandemic.
“Throughout this process, our primary focus was on reviewing exemption applications and assisting businesses with their questions and concerns,” said DCED Secretary Dennis Davin, “all in service of the goal of protecting public health in the face of an unprecedented and quickly evolving public health emergency.”
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.