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Critics question transparency of virtual press conferences during COVID-19 crisis

Governor Tom Wolf said web-based press briefings allow questions to come in from every corner of the state. Critics are raising transparency concerns.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine have held virtual press conferences. Reporters are not in the room—they send in questions via the web and now these briefings are raising transparency concerns.

“There’s no opportunity for follow-up questions, and in a dialogue, that’s where you understand where the issues are,” said Senator John DiSanto, whose district includes Dauphin and Perry Counties.

Senator DiSanto is one of many republican lawmakers pressing for accountability from the Wolf Administration, specifically regarding its system for allowing some nonessential businesses to reopen.

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“The waiver process has been confusing and fought with mischaracterizations of what’s happening. Competing businesses get a waiver, another one doesn’t. So one guy down the street is running his business. Another guy doing the exact same thing isn’t,” said Senator DiSanto.

Professor Lowell Briggs, Division Coordinator of Mass Communications and Public Relations at York College, knows what it’s like fielding questions in times of crises. For years, he worked with PEMA and FEMA doing disaster and emergency communications.

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He says the Wolf Administration’s calm, deliberate message is critical at a time like this.

“The message is the most important thing,” explained Professor Briggs. “The critical crisis risk and threat response of what we need to do to be safe supersedes, frankly, any sort of format change of what one state can do over another.”

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Governors in neighboring states have taken other approaches to their daily press briefings. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan holds his updates with reporters outside. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders engage with socially-distanced reporters in a large room.

As Pennsylvania prepares to restore its economy, FOX43 asked Governor Wolf if he might start to open the room to some reporters.

"Given the dictates of this virus that we're all struggling with, I think this is a better way to do it than assorted reporters sitting great distances from each other in an effort to recreate the old press conference form,” Governor Wolf explained about his decision to hold virtual press conferences.

Before FOX43 could ask a follow-up question, the press conference ended.

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