A martial arts dojo, a custom-sign maker and an expert at planning large gatherings aren’t exactly the first things that spring to mind when mapping out what people need to survive a pandemic.
And yet they’re among more than 6,000 Pennsylvania businesses that state officials determined to be “life-sustaining.”
The list, released late Friday by the Department of Community and Economic Development, has raised questions about how authorities picked which companies could continue operating and which had to shut their doors under Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order.
“The information is incomplete,” said David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association. “You don’t know why the waivers were granted. You don’t know why other companies that applied did not get waivers.”
And just because a company got a waiver doesn’t mean they used it. At least one framing business deemed life-sustaining furloughed its seven employees rather than stay open.
“It’s not worth risking the health of my clients and people,” said Mike Minasian, owner of the Masterpieces Custom Framing in Delaware County. He and his wife applied for the waiver “out of fear” of losing their business, and don’t know why the state gave it to them.
“People can wait for framing. They can’t wait for food,” Minasian said.
Wolf acknowledged the unfairness of the situation, but blamed the virus that the shutdown was enacted to combat.
“This period of time is unfair to all of us. It’s frustrating. But this is the dictate of a virus that we’re all fighting. It’s not the dictate of some abstract law or some politician trying to impose his or her will on Pennsylvania,” Wolf said. “This is the virus speaking. We’re all trying to make sure we stay safe.”
As for releasing rationales for waivers that were granted, he said, “If there’s more that we can do, we will continue to look for ways to make it even more transparent.”
That might answer questions for both the business owners who were denied, and a few that were approved.
“In all honesty, I was surprised when I got” the waiver, said Brandon Keeton, owner of Tiger Rock Martial Arts of Central Pennsylvania, in Camp Hill. Keeton argued in his waiver application that “people need to stay active and stay moving ... Kids can’t just be sitting around.” He’s been teaching mostly online, through Zoom, so the students have no physical contact.
While he’s glad he got the waiver, Keeton said he understands concerns about the appearance of the process.
“It looks like the government is picking winners,” said Keeton, a retired Marine who described himself as “more of a free-market guy.”
Sen. Scott Martin said he has heard that concern echoed by frustrated business owners.
“You see such a wide array of different kinds of industries and it really hits you: Where's the consistency and the fairness?” Martin, R-Martic Twp., said.
Martin said his office connected some frustrated businesses with DCED after they had not heard back about their waiver applications, but there was never a situation where he was doing “favors” for businesses.
“What would show that is transparency and turning over the documents and the communications,” Martin said.