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By Christen Smith | The Center Square | AP Photo by Matt Rourke

Less than 24 hours after he ordered non-essential businesses closed, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a waiver process for non-life-sustaining businesses unable to meet his demands.

The development signals a softening from the administration after Thursday’s order, a decision Wolf said came from a growing concern over the spreading coronavirus outbreak that has killed two residents and sickened 371 others.

“The overwhelming majority of businesses were taking this seriously, but some weren’t,” he said during a news conference Friday. “The point of the issue was compliance, but more of it was a concern, really.”

Businesses can apply for the waiver or take advantage of federal disaster loans through the Small Business Administration, Wolf said. He’s also working with lawmakers to approve a $60 million state loan program, though no timeline for its passage has been set.

“If you think you’ve been mistakenly classified as nonessential then you should seek that waiver,” Wolf said. “We’ve set this up in a way that cuts through bureaucratic red tape to make this as quick and as painless as we can. So if you feel we are not right, seek a waiver.”

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Businesses without a waiver will be subject to enforcement action from the state beginning 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Consequences range from fines to losing a license to criminal prosecution.

Republicans Push Back

Legislative Republicans criticized the shutdown order as an incoherent overreach of power and suggested that the governor had violated the constitution. Wolf has maintained that his disaster declaration, signed March 6, gives him the authority to shut down nonessential businesses in the interest of public health.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said the coronavirus’s exponential spread over the last week highlights the importance of following the governor’s order.

On Friday, residents diagnosed with COVID-19 increased 45 percent to 268. Levine said this number doubled over 48 hours and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

“We expect things to get worse before they get better,” she said. “We are still seeing an exponential rise in cases across the country and in Pennsylvania.”

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