Wolf admin. releases partial list of business shutdown waivers

By: - May 8, 2020 6:20 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf (Commonwealth Media Services photo)

Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday released the names of more than 6,000 businesses that secured waivers to operate during the state’s COVID-19 shutdown, but declined to comply fully with a subpoena that sought the names of thousands more businesses that were denied the same privileges. 

Data published by the Wolf administration early Friday evening show that day care centers, manufacturing facilities, and fitness centers were among the businesses that were granted permission to operate since March, when the Democratic governor  ordered all non-essential businesses to close their doors amidst a statewide stay-at-home order. 

Wolf released the data on the same day that he faced a deadline to respond to a subpoena issued by the Republican-controlled state Senate, which sought the names of all the businesses that have applied for waivers since March. 

In a letter to the Senate, Wolf claimed executive privilege to withhold the names of businesses that sought waivers and were rejected. 

More than 42,000 have applied for the program in total, Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Denis Davin told a Senate panel last month. 

Wolf said Friday that his administration intends to release the names of all the waiver applications to the public. But did not provide a timeline for doing so. 

He said some of the businesses disclosed proprietary information in their waiver applications, and claimed that his administration ”cannot waive the privacy interests that these business owners have in this information.”

“We will alert these businesses that your committee has sought their potentially private information and recommend that they contact you to authorize disclosure of such information,” Wolf wrote. 

Senate Republican leaders said Friday that they would weigh their next steps now that Wolf has declined to comply with the subpoena.

“The public has a right to understand the methods behind granting waivers to some employers and not others,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said in an emailed statement.

Media outlets including the Capital-Star have filed public records requests under the state’s Right-to-Know law to obtain the list of applicants and other details surrounding the waiver process. 

The administration has said it cannot process those requests while state offices are closed to the public.

The state House has advanced legislation to require Wolf and future governors answer public records requests amid a disaster declaration, as well as make sure any similar programs release their information to the public.

A Senate panel voted on party lines last week to try to obtain the information by subpoena. The vote came the same day that Democratic state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced he would audit the program — an effort to which the Wolf administration has pledged its cooperation.  

Gov. Tom Wolf ran as a champion of government transparency. The COVID-19 pandemic is putting that to the test

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.