Late Friday, the Wolf Administration released a list of 6,123 Pennsylvania companies that were granted waivers from a state shutdown order closing all non-life-sustaining businesses. The late-day disclosure came amid mounting calls for transparency about the program, though it seems unlikely to silence them.
The list includes 675 businesses in Allegheny County – the county which had the most waivers granted at the time the program was shut down a month ago. (Philadelphia, the largest county in terms of population, had 237 businesses that received waivers.) Many of the waivers were given to manufacturers, or plumbers or other contractors whose services might well be essential. But what qualifies some businesses as life-sustaining isn’t always immediately apparent.
Allegheny County’s list includes such businesses as a jewelry maker, a children’s arts studio, and numerous florists. Other parts of the state have similar inclusions, among them a taxidermist and a comic book shop.
Several businesses on the county’s list either were not open or did not return calls from WESA on Saturday. But connections to life-sustaining activity can emerge even if they aren’t obvious. A local firm that specializes in making molded plastic wall panels for funhouses and other settings, for example, also advertises making germ and sneeze shields. Apparel makers have added masks to their product lines in the wake of the virus.
Among those who received a waiver was North Hills independent bookseller Riverstone Books. Owner Barbara Jeremiah said that she applied for a waiver because “I’ve learned in my long life that you never know until you ask what the answer is going to be.” She said she spent roughly five minutes applying for the waiver, writing in an online form that Riverstone was prepared to do business by phone and online order, and distribute books by delivery or curbside pickup.
Her application also noted “that there were going to be a lot of kids and teachers at home,” desperate for something to read with libraries and other facilities closed.
Even so, “You could have knocked me over with a feather when we got the designation,” she said. The store remains closed to customers, but the waiver allows her to have a handful of employees on-hand to take and fill orders.
“We would have survived” without the designation, said Jeremiah. Still, she said, “I really appreciate that I got the waiver,” which she keeps posted in the window so no one reports her for operating in defiance of shutdown orders.
The waiver list is likely to remain controversial, however. The Wolf Administration received over 42,000 applications, and denied more than a third of them. (More than 11,000 were told they didn’t need a waiver.)
Republicans in the state Senate subpoenaed the administration for records related to its handling of the waiver program, with a Friday afternoon deadline: The administration’s data-dump Friday clearly failed to satisfy them.
“We are looking at our legal options to further getting the information out to the public,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said in a statement. “The public has a right to understand the methods behind granting waivers to some employers and not others.”