- A new report sheds light on the way Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's administration handled COVID-19 shutdowns that impacted contractors and other businesses earlier this year. The analysis from state auditor Eugene DePasquale looks at the state's COVID-19 business waiver program that allowed some companies to continue operations during the shutdown, finding that it was, at times, a confusing, "subjective process built on shifting sands of changing guidance."
- Of the almost 43,000 applications requesting a waiver, the state approved just over 6,100, according to Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). The auditor also found that some companies that submitted more than one application received different decisions for each application.
- With the exception of some maintenance and repair categories, Wolf halted all construction activity in the state from March 21 through May 1.
DePasquale said that the audit is ongoing but, so far, he has found that the DCED changed its decision as to whether approximately 500 businesses in five categories qualified for a waiver or even needed one during the two-week processing period from March 20 to April 3. The state auditor said the information that the DCED supplied in response to his requests for information did not explain the agency's decision-making process except to say the applications had gone through additional review. Some information on the applications sent to the DCED also had been redacted.
Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers sued the Wolf administration in May, asking the court to enforce a state Senate committee subpoena requesting all records related to the waiver program. Like DePasquale, state Republicans said they were looking for the reasoning behind the DCED's waiver decisions. The plaintiffs withdrew that petition in July.
While the construction industry was not one of the business categories DePasquale studied, he cited a Pennsylvania contractor as an example of the uncertainty of the waiver process.
The construction company, he said, submitted 10 applications for different construction projects. Two of the contractor's applications were for roof renovations at two different hospitals. One was approved and the other was returned with the answer that the waiver was "not required." The contractor then received two "no" responses and one "yes" response for three renovations of the same communication provider's installations at three locations.
Pennsylvania's shutdown of the construction industry at the start of the pandemic was one of the most severe state reactions, as most allowed contracting to continue as an essential business. Contractors were allowed back to work on May 1, albeit with new safety precautions in place. Some of the re-opening conditions Pennsylvania imposed on state contractors are:
- Each person on a jobsite must wear a mask or face covering unless medical reasons or safety dictates otherwise.
- Contractors must establish and implement protocols that kick in upon discovering probable cases of COVID-19.
- Construction companies must ensure social distancing on their projects.
- Contractors must provide hand washing and sanitizing stations and protocols.
- Construction companies must designate a “pandemic safety officer” for each project.