Pennsylvania Capitol

THE ISSUE

“The Wolf administration’s coronavirus business waiver program was inconsistent and confusing, creating an unfair playing field for companies across Pennsylvania, according to the preliminary results of a state audit,” Spotlight PA’s Angela Couloumbis reported Tuesday. (An Associated Press version of the story appeared in Wednesday’s LNP.) In its ongoing accountability series, “Decided in Secret,” Spotlight PA has examined the inconsistent standards the state used starting in late March to determine which businesses are providing “life-sustaining” services and thus could remain open. Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with news organizations including LNP Media Group.

“To protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians, we need to take more aggressive mitigation actions. This virus is an invisible danger that could be present everywhere. ... We need to act now before the illness spreads more widely.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said that March 19. We should try to keep in mind what a dizzying moment it was for our state and nation. We talk often now of struggling through uncharted waters, but mid-March is when we first found ourselves in those seas, shocked at the suddenness of it all.

Wolf was absolutely correct on March 19 about the severity and threat of the virus.

He was correct about the need for a rapid response to keep Pennsylvanians safe.

But, in implementing that month’s emergency actions, Wolf’s administration failed some Pennsylvania businesses and exacerbated what was already a fearful situation shrouded in unknowns.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale highlighted those serious missteps Tuesday in a “status update” for the ongoing audit of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s waiver process for businesses that appealed the governor’s COVID-19 closure order.

Reporting by Spotlight PA and this newspaper has already detailed problems surrounding the waiver process. DePasquale’s report brought to the surface further troubling analysis:

— “The waiver program appeared to be a subjective process built on shifting sands of changing guidance, which led to significant confusion among business owners.”

— “Some owners of small businesses may not have had the knowledge to use the right ‘buzzwords’ in their justification for remaining open, or realized they could ask a legislator for help to navigate the process.”

Tuesday’s report from DePasquale, a Democrat, notes that his office is still analyzing whether there was “outside influence” in the process. For now, it leans into this analysis: “Initial review indicates a lack of consistency because decisions to grant or deny a waiver to keep a business open were being made by multiple individuals based on constantly changing guidelines.”

It is all so frustrating, especially for those whose livelihoods suffered because of the seemingly haphazard approach. We understand the angry letters we’ve published on this topic over the past months. We too have decried the Wolf administration’s handling of waivers in multiple editorials.

DePasquale’s review must be concluded as swiftly and thoroughly as possible. We need specific answers on what went wrong and why.

We agree with David Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, who told Spotlight PA, “The flimsy overview issued (Tuesday) ... does not begin to address the deeply disturbing practices of the Wolf administration that have destroyed untold Pennsylvania jobs and businesses while others somehow got the ‘Golden Ticket’ of a waiver from Governor Wolf’s front office.”

We need answers so we can learn from this.

COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic to strike Pennsylvania.

We must be better next time.

So we need to look both backward and forward.

And there’s this: The Wolf administration should not be graded on a curve simply because of the unprecedented nature of this crisis. Or because it was working amid the toxic, dysfunctional relationship that exists between the two major political parties in Harrisburg.

That ongoing toxicity is all the more reason to learn from this. If COVID-19 can’t unite Harrisburg, what can? We must create a stronger, more transparent system to handle health crises. Wolf’s Democrats and the Republican-led General Assembly must agree to put Pennsylvanians first and make decisions together.

The governor’s rollout of the waiver process hurt the wallets of some constituents whose very health he was trying to protect.

“If we are going to be in this situation again, we can’t have this Keystone Kops routine again,” DePasquale said.

We agree. If a push for Harrisburg to work together is all we take from this, it’s a significant step.

While peering backward and forward, we must also address this moment, and an opportunity to fix an issue LNP | LancasterOnline’s Pat Bywater detailed in Monday’s edition.

Bywater notes that only “a relatively small number of Lancaster County restaurants have signed up for a state program that allows them to operate at 50% indoor seating capacity.”

As of last Friday, just 160 of 720 local restaurants had completed the necessary self-certification.

The process involves only filling out and submitting a one-page online form. But, as Bywater notes, confusion still exists; chain restaurants are required to submit a separate form for each location; and some owners are worried that the Wolf administration might change the rules again soon.

We understand and sympathize with all of those concerns.

Some restaurant owners seem to have a “misconception (that) self-certifying could open them up to additional inspections, liability … or additional penalty. To be clear, none of that is true or accurate,” Casey Smith, communications director for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, told LNP.

And so this represents a golden opportunity for the state to improve the process and use everything in its power to ensure that restaurants are able to boost to 50% capacity, if they meet the guidelines.

And the Wolf administration should take this piece of advice from Lancaster restaurateur Mick Owens: Consult restaurant owners about the complexities of the restaurant business, instead of “making arbitrary rules without bringing restaurant owners in for a seat at the table. We voluntarily want to provide solutions.”

That said, we think it should be less incumbent on restaurant owners and more incumbent on the Wolf administration to do all it can to restart this sector of the economy — which should in turn bring other benefits for Pennsylvanians.

We must do it safely, of course. And indeed there are no guarantees.

But we ask that the state be more proactive about dealing with restaurants this month. Immediately.

Communication and transparency can help the state demonstrate that some lessons were learned during the botched waiver process.