Auditor General Finds Inconsistencies in Business Closure Mandates

From the PA Chamber of Business & Industry

Last week, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced some initial findings related to an audit being conducted of the Wolf Administration’s handling of the business closures mandates that were ordered in March in response to COVID-19.

Auditors have found that the state Department of Community and Economic Development’s rationale for determining which businesses were “life-sustaining” and could remain open early last spring, versus those that had to shutter immediately, was “inconsistent” and “subjective.” Moreover, the AG’s office has found that the waiver process by which businesses could apply for an exception to keep their doors open was “built on shifting sands of changing guidance, which led to significant confusion among business owners.”

“The criteria and guidelines for such evaluations were developed, updated and maintained outside the department,” DePasquale told reporters. “So DCED was running the process but not in charge of the criteria and guidelines used for the process.”

The audit reviewed 42,380 waiver applications that were submitted by businesses from March 20 to April 3 and noted that at least 523 received a response from DCED that later changed, often without explanation, as the list of industries that were allowed to stay open continued to evolve.

The Wolf Administration opted to establish its own process rather than using the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) list, which many groups – including the PA Chamber – had suggested as it was more transparent, easily understood and emphasized maintaining supply chains.  Legislation that passed the General Assembly and would have adopted the CISA list as the basis for authorizing businesses to operate was vetoed by the governor in April.

According to a story in the Central Penn Business Journal, the Auditor General’s office is continuing to investigate the matter, and is reviewing hundreds of pages of correspondence regarding business waiver applications. PA Chamber President Gene Barr acknowledged to the media outlet that this unprecedented situation was undoubtedly challenging for DCED; but said that restricting certain business sectors forced companies to reroute their supply chains and incentivized business owners to conduct business in less restrictive states.

The Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce worked with the PA Chamber and legislators at the state and federal levels to assist area businesses in seeking clarification or waivers related to the Governor’s closure orders.