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Business owners argue waiver program unfair

Matt Muccitelli of Park Home, a family business in Duncansville that sells appliances, has been trying to get state government to listen to his argument that his store shouldn’t have had to close because of the COVID-19 crisis as a purveyor only of nonessential items.

He applied for a waiver to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, but it rejected his argument that refrigerators, stoves, washers and dryers are essential, even though Lowe’s — deemed essential because of its hardware and construction items — can sell the same kinds of appliances.

“You can’t say appliances we sell are nonessential while appliances Lowes sells are essential,” Muccitelli stated in a recent email. “Appliances are either essential or they’re not.”

A pair of state Senate committees heard similar arguments Thursday about the state’s shutdown of nonessential businesses and the waiver process for exceptions.

Gordon Denlinger, director of the National Federation of Independent Business of Pennsylvania, described the process as chaotic, inconsistent, non-transparent and biased toward big-box stores, even as he credited the administration’s overall good intentions.

Muccitelli didn’t participate in the hearing of the Community, Economic & Recreational Development and the Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness committees, but Matt Stuckey of Stuckey Automotive in Hollidaysburg did. He, too, thinks his business has been treated unfairly.

Stuckey’s maintenance department remained open, as an essential business, but his sales department had to close, unlike auto sales departments in 24 states, Stuckey wrote to the committees.

Those other states’ sales departments had to follow social distancing guidelines, but they were able to provide transportation to people who need it — including people critical for society in the crisis, like health care workers and first responders, Stuckey argued.

It’s an essential function because nearly one-fifth of new and used vehicle purchases are for replacement of vehicles that are non-serviceable or wrecked, he wrote.

Stuckey tried and was rejected three times for a waiver, even though 20 Pennsylvania car dealers got waivers, he said.

He lost several dozen potential customers who went to Maryland to buy vehicles, he said.

Pennsylvania finally relented, allowing online vehicle sales, but it was among the last to do so — waiting until April 20, Stuckey said.

The COVID-19 crisis forced Stuckey to furlough two-thirds of his employees.

Muccitelli, who closed his store on March 19, expects that by the time it’s all over, he’ll have lost two months’ revenue and perhaps customers who will have gotten into the habit of shopping elsewhere.

“It’s hard enough to get customers in the first place,” Muccitelli said.

The big-box stores that have been serving those lost customers are no more capable of doing so safely — within social distancing guidelines — than he is, Muccitelli said.

Muccitelli found it especially galling when DCED Secretary Dennis Davin told the senators Thursday, “We’re not picking winners and losers.”

“If our situation isn’t an example of the government picking winners and losers, I don’t know what is,” Muccitelli wrote in an email.

Muccitelli’s problems with the closure are compounded by uncertainty.

“What really hurts is that it’s still very unclear about the timetable when we can bring our employees back and reopen,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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