Pennsylvania Auditor General Tim DeFoor released a performance audit last week that examined how the state Department of Community and Economic Development handled the process of granting waivers to businesses, thus allowing them to stay open, during an emergency shutdown ordered by Gov. Wolf in the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring.
“This audit revealed a flawed process that provided inconsistent answers to business owners and caused confusion,” AG DeFoor said at a press conference. “While the pandemic certainly presented some unique challenges, the process was hastily assembled on the fly, unevenly administered and should be reformed before anything like it is every used again.”
According to a story in Capitolwire, the audit found that DCED posted numerous versions of the waiver application and made alternations to what is considered “life-sustaining” nine times. Among the recommendations put forth in the report include soliciting outside consultation to consider what makes a business “life-sustaining;” limiting changes to guidance during the waiver process; requiring a second reviewer to confirm a decision before a response is given; and providing a consistent response to businesses within the same industry.
More than 42,000 employers sought a waiver during the governor’s closure order last spring – DCED granted waivers to more than 7,000 of them. At that time, the PA Chamber and other business groups, including local chambers of commerce, sent communications to the governor urging clarity in the “life-sustaining business” classification and recommending that the administration adopt the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s list for making these determinations, as several other states had done. Unfortunately, this proposal was not adopted.
In a Pennsylvania Business Report story following the release of the AG report, PA Chamber President and CEO Gene Barr mentioned the CISA list recommendation, saying that while “We certainly acknowledge we were in unchartered territory in March of 2020 while seeking to stem the spread of the COVID virus … had we adhered to CISA, we would have suffered fewer economic disruptions and job dislocations.”