Donate

Businesses tied to Gov. Tom Wolf, top Pa. senator close after questions about how they qualified as ‘life-sustaining’

(Ed Mahon/PA Post)

(Ed Mahon/PA Post)

This story was produced as part of a joint effort among Spotlight PALNP Media GroupPennLivePA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus. Sign up for Spotlight PA’s newsletter.

Thousands of businesses in Pennsylvania have closed under Gov. Tom Wolf’s unprecedented statewide shutdown to help slow the spread of coronavirus, but not the company that the Democratic governor once owned, or the business now owned by the Senate’s most powerful member.

Until now.

On Thursday, Wolf’s office said it had rescinded a waiver that had been issued to the governor’s former business, a kitchen and bath cabinet supply company in Central Pennsylvania, after Spotlight PA and PA Post inquired about how it qualified as “life-sustaining.”

Likewise, The Dan Smith Candy Company, owned by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) — which makes and sells candies, chocolates and other specialty items at stores in the northern part of the state — also closed its doors after inquiries from the news organizations.

The ability for both companies to remain open amid a crisis of unparalleled proportions in Pennsylvania — one that has already taken a severe toll on businesses large and small, as well as their workers — underscores the opaque and chaotic process that has unfolded since Wolf first began shutting down the state last week.

Since that time, Wolf has twice expanded the list of industries that are exempt, allowed gun shops to reopen on a limited basis, and issued waivers to thousands of more businesses, allowing them to reopen their physical locations. Many described that process as random, inconsistent and frustratingly slow.

“It doesn’t seem like there is any consistency,” said Robert Kleckner, owner of Linfield National Golf Club in Montgomery County, who has twice applied for a state waiver and has not heard back from the Department of Community and Economic Development, which is in charge of the process.

There are few safeguards in place to ensure the waiver process has been fair and equitable. The administration has declined to release the exact criteria and process for approvals and denials, and it has also declined to release a list of businesses that were allowed to reopen and those that were not.

As of Wednesday, the Department of Community and Economic Development said it had received a staggering 24,877 waiver requests. Of those, 4,003 had been approved and 4,439 had been denied. At a news conference that day, Wolf said he was not personally signing off on any of the waiver decisions.

On Thursday, when asked by Spotlight PA if he would pledge to release a list of all businesses granted and denied waivers, the governor was non-committal, saying he would consider it “if I can be convinced that that’s in the best interest of making sure that we’re doing the right thing.”

“I want to be as open and transparent as I can,” Wolf said during his daily video news conference on the coronavirus outbreak. “I also don’t want to make this process subject to all kinds of pressures that might make it work less well than I think it should.”

Dennis Davin, the head of the Department of Community and Economic Development, also left open the possibility of releasing the information, but he declined to give a specific timeline.

“We will work to make these decisions public as quickly as we can,” Davin said, “but right now, the biggest focus is on reviewing and getting these waivers out. We are working night and day on this.”

Wolf has said his decision to close all but the most essential businesses is a vital part of the strategy to keep people at home and away from one another to stymie the virus’ unrelenting spread. As it stands, the number of new COVID-19 cases across Pennsylvania is doubling every two to three days.

But the governor’s business shutdown has been sowed with confusion from the start. On March 16, he ordered all non-essential businesses to close, but he did not clearly specify which industries were considered non-essential, and also declined to enforce the measure, instead relying on voluntary compliance.

Several days later, on March 19, Wolf issued a mandatory order for all but “life-sustaining” businesses to close, and this time released a comprehensive list of industries that noted whether they qualified to remain open or not.

Within 24 hours, his administration made its first round of changes, allowing previously prohibited businesses such as laundromats, accountants, and tax preparers to reopen. It also reopened portions of the manufacturing sector, after industry leaders complained the order threatened to block the supply of critical goods.

Also allowed to reopen: specialty food stores, such as chocolate and candy-making retailers. The administration has said that those shops were deemed “life-sustaining” upon review because they often carry essential items, such as water, that are necessary for survival.

Some candy-makers have temporarily shut down operations, including Just Born Quality Confections, the maker of Peeps. The company said it was temporarily closing both its production facilities in Bethlehem and Philadelphia, as well as its Peeps & Company Store in Center Valley.

Other smaller candy-makers continued operating, including Scarnati’s company.

Earlier this week, when someone questioned the company on its Facebook page about why it was open, the store said that it qualified as a specialty food store, as it sells “sauces, pasta and oils, biscotti , etc.” It said it gave its employees the option not to work.

“We are a small business trying to do our part,” it responded. “If you want to question why we are on the list, then I suggest you contact the Governor’s office.”

Scarnati did not respond to a request for comment. His wife, Amy Scarnati, also declined comment when reached by phone and asked why the business was still operating. Soon after, the candy store updated its Facebook page to say its stores had closed.

Wolf Home Products, a York-based cabinet and building products supply company, was formerly owned by the governor. After winning the election in 2014, Wolf put his assets in a blind trust and gave a cousin and former business partner authority to sell his shares in the business.

By May 2015, a private equity firm had acquired a majority stake in the business and Wolf was no longer a shareholder.

On Wednesday, 20 cars were parked at a Wolf distribution center, just outside York. A few workers could be seen coming in and out of the center.

Papers taped to an office trailer window said “STOP!!!”, described guidelines for social distancing at an “Essential Business,” and told visitors to call a number before entering. An employee who answered the number referred questions to the corporate office.

The doors to the first floor of Wolf Home Products’ corporate office in York were open and a sign said, “We Care About Everyone. The employees of this facility are practicing Safe Social Distancing. Thank You for Understanding, your Participation, and Help to Eliminate the Invisible Enemy.” A sign said the elevator to its upstairs offices was locked and deliveries should call two numbers. A person who answered said no one was available to talk to a reporter.

After Spotlight PA and PA Post asked questions about its operations, Wolf’s office said in an email statement that the company “was originally approved as supporting infrastructure. Upon further review, [the Department of Community and Economic Development] determined that the lines of business Wolf is engaging in do not meet the criteria, and their exemption will be rescinded.”

Other businesses have not been so successful in getting a waiver. Kleckner, who owns the golf course in Montgomery County, said in an interview that he is aware of at least two golf courses that say they received waivers and have reopened.

“I am not upset at them. In fact, I think that’s fantastic,” said Kleckner, who also serves as the president of the Pennsylvania Golf Course Owners Association. “My question to the governor is, why didn’t other golf courses receive a waiver to remain open? It’s disheartening.”

Administration officials said one of the golf courses was only cleared to reopen for maintenance, but the name of the other was not known.

Davin, the secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development, said his agency has 40 to 50 people processing waiver applications every day. They are working under challenging circumstances, Davin said, including doing the work remotely.

Sometimes, he said, though it may appear that two businesses in the same field are getting different treatment, it is not the case. It could be that one company has provided more information that has helped it attain a waiver.

“We are doing a great job of going through these, but it is not perfect,” Davin said. “It is not perfect because there is no template for this. The whole world is feeling this.”

100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA provides its journalism at no cost to newsrooms across the state as a public good to keep our communities informed and thriving. If you value this service, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal