The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)
From pet groomers and chocolatiers to cabinet makers and plumbers, more than 40,000 Pennsylvania businesses asked for exemptions from the emergency order Gov. Tom Wolf issued in March, which forced non-essential businesses to shut their doors indefinitely as the state tried to contain COVID-19.
The Wolf administration began releasing the names of those businesses this month, facing mounting pressure from news outlets and a subpoena from Senate Republicans. We’ve compiled it all here in an easily searchable format.
A few notes about the data: The Wolf administration published the business names in four PDF documents posted to the Department of Community and Economic Development’s website. We extracted the contents using Tabula, an open source software that converts tables in PDF files into spreadsheets.
Our first database has more than 29,000 businesses that sought waivers. A Capital-Star review of the data found that roughly 12,000 were rejected and 11,000 were told that they didn’t need to apply because they met the administration’s criteria for life-sustaining businesses. Approximately 6,000 businesses had their wavier requests approved.
The second database lists roughly 10,000 construction companies, law firms, golf courses and automotive businesses that applied for waivers and received industry-specific responses from the Wolf administration.
Since these industries are subject to specific guidelines for operating during the pandemic, the Wolf administration began sending those guidelines to waiver applicants as it “refined its process for responding” to the requests, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development.
This dataset has more than 20,000 entries, but a Capital-Star analysis found that there are only 10,300 unique business names, suggesting that many entries in the file the Wolf administration released may be duplicates.
The administration said it awarded waivers to businesses that were integral to the state’s supply chain or that helped others provide life-sustaining goods and services. But lawmakers from both parties have charged that the administration’s decision-making was inconsistent and opaque.
It’s hard to evaluate the waiver program because the administration has only released the limited information you see here: the names and counties of businesses that sought waivers, and the administration’s responses to their requests.
The Wolf administration has not yet released copies of the applications or the criteria the Department of Community and Economic Development used to evaluate them, despite repeated requests from lawmakers and reporters.
State officials have said that they made decisions based on the business plans, safety strategies and other information that firms provided in their applications. But Wolf claims that his administration can’t release those materials without divulging proprietary information that businesses didn’t expect would be made public.
The state’s Right-to-Know allows such information to be released, but the Wolf administration largely stopped responding to open records requests when state offices closed in March. He said at a Tuesday press conference that the requests would be processed, but declined to offer a timeline for working through the backlog.
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