Pennsylvania’s business shutdown waiver program gets audited

April 30, 2020 GMT
Clover Hill golf course manager Bill Schwietzer, left, and Josh Ford check tee-times outside the clubhouse on Thursday, April 30, 2020 in Pittsburgh. Golf courses across Pennsylvania are preparing to re-open Friday May 1, 2020, practicing safe-distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Clover Hill golf course manager Bill Schwietzer, left, and Josh Ford check tee-times outside the clubhouse on Thursday, April 30, 2020 in Pittsburgh. Golf courses across Pennsylvania are preparing to re-open Friday May 1, 2020, practicing safe-distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Clover Hill golf course manager Bill Schwietzer, left, and Josh Ford check tee-times outside the clubhouse on Thursday, April 30, 2020 in Pittsburgh. Golf courses across Pennsylvania are preparing to re-open Friday May 1, 2020, practicing safe-distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Clover Hill golf course manager Bill Schwietzer, left, and Josh Ford check tee-times outside the clubhouse on Thursday, April 30, 2020 in Pittsburgh. Golf courses across Pennsylvania are preparing to re-open Friday May 1, 2020, practicing safe-distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Clover Hill golf course manager Bill Schwietzer, left, and Josh Ford check tee-times outside the clubhouse on Thursday, April 30, 2020 in Pittsburgh. Golf courses across Pennsylvania are preparing to re-open Friday May 1, 2020, practicing safe-distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf’s business shutdown waiver program is being audited amid complaints it was managed unfairly, Pennsylvania’s chief fiscal watchdog announced Thursday.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he is investigating how the Department of Community and Economic Development ran the waiver program, under which tens of thousands of businesses applied to remain open during the pandemic.

In March, Wolf, a Democrat, closed businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining” to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 45,000 Pennsylvania residents and killed nearly 2,300. Wolf said he welcomed a review by the auditor general’s office, headed by DePasquale, a fellow Democrat who is running for Congress this year.

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“During this pandemic, obviously our economy has taken a huge hit. The question we need to find out is, could more businesses have been opened?” DePasquale said in a video news conference. “And was this done in a fair process?”

Separately, a committee in the Republican-controlled state Senate voted Thursday along party lines to use a rarely used subpoena process to demand information related to the waivers granted by Wolf’s administration.

The pandemic and the state’s efforts to contain the virus have caused economic devastation, throwing nearly 1.7 million Pennsylvania residents out of work since mid-March.

Many business owners have complained about a process they contend has been slow and arbitrary.

Butler County dog groomer Pamela Zydel, whose business, 5th Avenue Fido, has been closed since March 19 and was denied a waiver because pet grooming is considered a nonessential business, questioned why a big-box retailer like Walmart is permitted to serve hundreds of customers at a time but she can’t groom a single dog.

Zydel, whose county has only been lightly impacted by the virus, said she plowed her life savings into purchasing the business in October, “and now I’m virtually broke.” She said she could have operated safely.

“I don’t think it was thought through very carefully, and I don’t think they thought about the ramifications of their decisions,” she said.

Wolf defended the waiver program, saying Thursday that Pennsylvania was possibly the only state to allow business owners to appeal their designation as either essential or nonessential as governors across the country ordered shutdowns.

“We tried to do right thing,” he said. “Were some mistakes made? Maybe. And if they were, then the folks in Pennsylvania have every right to know about that. I think the auditor general is in a really good position to determine whether that, in fact, happened.”

Wolf’s office, however, called the Senate’s subpoenas a “counterproductive step.” It said it is committed to disclosing information about the process, but did not say whether it would comply by the Senate’s May 8 deadline.

More than 42,000 businesses applied for exemptions by the April 3 application deadline. Over 6,000 had been approved through Wednesday, while more than 13,000 applications were denied. Thousands more businesses applied for waivers that didn’t need them to stay open, according to state officials.

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Wolf recently announced he is loosening some business restrictions and plans to begin easing stay-at-home orders on May 8 in lightly impacted regions of the state.

In other coronavirus-related developments Thursday:

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TESTING WITHOUT SYMPTOMS

Patients going in for elective surgeries should be tested for the virus even if they don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19, the state health secretary said Thursday.

To this point, the Health Department has recommended testing people with fever, cough or other symptoms of the disease.

But as hospitals and outpatient facilities begin the resumption of elective surgeries, they should test even asymptomatic patients for the virus, Dr. Rachel Levine said Thursday.

Testing is recommended, but not mandatory, the department said. It’s to protect patients who have the virus but don’t know it, since, depending on the procedure, they could be at heightened risk of complications, health officials said.

The Wolf administration in March had ordered hospitals to postpone elective procedures to preserve hospital capacity and medical supplies. They were given permission to resume on Monday, provided they can show it won’t jeopardize patient safety or their ability to respond to a sudden spike in COVID-19 patients.

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HELP FOR HOSPITALS

More than 30 Pennsylvania hospitals got $324 million in emergency state aid to support them during the early stages of the pandemic, the Wolf administration said Thursday.

Hospitals lost revenue as they canceled elective surgeries and appointments, while also spending enormously to get ready for a surge in coronavirus patients.

The state’s Hospital Emergency Loan Program, or HELP, is providing hospitals with short-term low-interest aid diverted from unused funds originally set aside for water and sewer infrastructure projects.

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PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

An umbrella group of Pennsylvania organizations that serve about 30,000 people with intellectual disabilities and autism say severe funding and staffing problems could lead some to shut down in the coming weeks.

The care providers face high turnover and job vacancy rates in normal times, and those issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mark Davis, president of Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability.

One provider recently laid off 100 people, Davis said. A growing problem with employees calling off work — particularly in areas hit hard by the virus —- has pushed up overtime costs and forced managers to fill gaps, he said.

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CASES

Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 death toll rose by 97 to 2,292, the state Health Department reported Thursday.

Levine has repeatedly — and inaccurately — said the Health Department is only counting deaths confirmed by a positive virus test. Included in the toll are 43 listed as probable deaths, meaning they were thought to have contracted the virus based on their symptoms but died before they could be tested.

About 1,400 additional people tested positive for the virus that causes the disease, bringing the statewide total to more than 45,700 people who have tested positive, according to the latest Health Department data.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have recovered.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak