PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration says it will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that pandemic restrictions that required people to stay at home, placed limits on gatherings and ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close are unconstitutional.
Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties — and some Republican officials like Congressman Mike Kelly and state Reps. Marcie Mustello, Daryl Metcalfe and Tim Bonner — filed a lawsuit against Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.
“We didn’t seek a dollars worth of damages, we sought a declaration that these things were wrong and that’s exactly what Judge Stickman’s order finds. The state was wrong,” said Attorney Tom King.
Tom said the plaintiff’s constitutional rights were violated. The counties were in the “red” phase when they filed the lawsuit in May, saying the restrictions on businesses and gathering limits were unconstitutional.
“It declares that the stay at home orders were unconstitutional — should never have happened, that the business shutdown orders violate two sections of the U.S. Constitution and picking winners and losers shall not happen again in Pennsylvania under these circumstances,” King said.
U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV, an appointee of President Donald Trump, sided with the plaintiffs. Stickman wrote in his ruling that the Wolf administration’s pandemic policies have been overreaching, arbitrary and violated citizens’ constitutional rights.
The governor’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus “were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” Stickman wrote. “But even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered.”
A statement from a spokesperson for the governor’s office says the Wolf administration is “disappointed” with Stickman’s ruling and will seek a stay of the decision and file an appeal.
Courts had consistently rejected challenges to Wolf’s power to order businesses to close during the pandemic, and many other governors, Republican and Democrat, undertook similar measures as the virus spread across the country.
“The actions taken by the administration were mirrored by governors across the country and saved, and continue to save lives in the absence of federal action,” says the governor’s office.
Wolf has lifted many of the restrictions since the lawsuit was filed in May, allowing businesses to reopen and canceling a statewide stay-at-home order. But there still are restrictions in place.
Gatherings inside are limited to 25, and gatherings outside are capped at 250. A statewide order also limits indoor dining to 25 percent occupancy and prohibits drinking alcohol unless the drink comes with a meal. However, the Wolf administration announced capacity will be increased to 50 percent on Sept. 21.
“Today’s court ruling is limited to the business closure order and the stay at home orders issued in March and were later suspended, as well as the indoor and outdoor gathering limitations,” the governor’s office says.
“This ruling does not impact any of the other mitigation orders currently in place including, but not limited to the targeted mitigation orders announced in July, mandatory telework, mandatory mask order, worker safety order, and the building safety order.”
For the businesses that are still restricted, King said it’s up to the individual business if they want to reopen fully, and the ruling outlines the ability to do just that.
When it comes to monetary damages, King said this lawsuit was only about the declaration, but we could see individual business owners filing their own new lawsuits.
“I think based upon this decision, many private business owners are going to evaluate whether they have a cause of action for damages because there is no dispute, there are a million-plus businesses in Pennsylvania that have been significantly damaged,” said Thomas Breth, who was also an attorney on the case.
Pennsylvania has reported that more than 145,000 people statewide have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 7,800 people have died.