As Governor Tom Wolf prepares to strike back against a U.S. District Court decision invalidating his early pandemic mitigation efforts, Pennsylvania politicians and citizens are wondering what happens now, and how the commonwealth can move forward safely.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV in Pittsburgh ruled portions of Wolf’s pandemic response – including stay at home orders and closures of businesses deemed "non-life-sustaining" – unconstitutional. Though many of the governor’s early executive orders were relaxed over the course of the past few months, Stickman also ruled against Wolf’s standing decision on limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings.
"The Constitution cannot accept the concept of a 'new normal' where the basic liberties of the people can be subordinated to open-ended emergency mitigation measures," Stickman wrote in his opinion. "Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by (the Governor) crossed those lines."
Wolf on Tuesday accused President Donald Trump and the Republican legislature of promoting conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the commonwealth’s economy, which the governor said has reopened despite any mitigation efforts.
"I believe the vast majority of Pennsylvanians understand what we had to do in the beginning was necessary to buy the time to keep people safe before we got the capacity we needed to address this virus" Wolf said. "And the vast majority simply don’t buy into the conspiracy theories or fear mongering from the president or from the Harrisburg republicans about this virus."
What happens now?
Being that Wolf’s lawyers plan on filing an appeal and a stay that would continue to enforce the mitigation efforts that are still in place, not much will change in the immediate sense, at least for now.
"This court ruling is limited to the business closure order and the stay at home orders issued in March, which were later suspended, as well as the 25-person indoor and 250-person outdoor gathering limitations," Wolf’s press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger said in a statement on Tuesday.
"This ruling does not impact any of the other mitigation orders currently in place including, but not limited to business occupancy restrictions, mandatory telework, mandatory mask order, worker safety order, and the building safety order."
However, commentary from General Assembly Republicans has suggested that while mitigation efforts are vital in the commonwealth to protect the public, unilateral decision making from the governor’s administration is not the way to orchestrate such strategies.
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"The General Assembly proved that time and again as we acted in a bipartisan manner to pass dozens of pandemic-related bills. Including efforts to reopen the state, extending necessary resources to vulnerable populations and nursing homes, ensuring our state’s children are educated and hold the administration accountable for unilateral actions," Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-34) said.
"While we work to protect lives, we cannot disregard the civil liberties of Pennsylvanians. We hope that this ruling will signal to the Governor that he must no longer spurn attempts by the General Assembly to provide input through legislation."
Justified early actions
Congressman Dan Meuser (PA-09) criticized Wolf’s orders on the basis that they were executed haphazardly, resulting in widespread confusion concerning business closures when they happened early on in the pandemic.
"I am pleased by today’s ruling, which correctly stated that no matter the severity of a crisis, the authority of government is not unfettered. The Governor’s shutdown orders were hastily announced and harmed thousands of businesses across the commonwealth who were forced to apply for waivers necessary to be deemed ‘life-sustaining,’ an arbitrary and capricious definition that resulted in government picking winners and losers. The Constitution is clear in defining the basic liberties of our citizens. Even amidst a pandemic, its meaning cannot be reinterpreted to justify emergency mitigation measures that trample the rights of the American people."
Senator Mario Scavello (R-40), who has contested Wolf’s decisions on business closures throughout the pandemic, voiced similar opinions, calling on the governor to employ more transparency and willingness to work alongside the General Assembly to create effect mitigation efforts with legislation as opposed to just executive orders.
"That was my whole complaint from day one: What was the criteria that you used in doing that? And it’s obvious that the court felt the same way."
"My whole thing was, ‘What’s your rationale?’ And the thing is, if he had answered me, ‘Well, this is what we looked at, this is the science,’ (that would help), but he never put that out there."
Scavello said he is still willing to work with Wolf – who he said was justified in making an executive order early on, but should have reached out to the legislature shortly thereafter – on a resolution that would put at least the given amount of power back to the legislature to make these pivotal decisions, but whether that plays out in such a fashion remains to be seen.
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"We did pass – and this is going to be constitutional – that any future emergency declarations last for 21 days, and then they cannot be extended without coming back to the legislature," Scavello said, referencing a bill that the General Assembly approved in July 2020, which, as a constitutional amendment, must pass both chambers again in the next session before voters ultimately decide on the matter.
At a meeting between Pocono restaurateurs and politicians held at Shawnee Inn on Friday, Rep. Maureen Madden (D-115) noted that she opposed that particular bill which would scale back the governor’s power regarding emergency disaster declarations due to the effect it could have on funding to address those disasters.
"I will outright not vote for any legislation that ends the governor’s ability to have the emergency disaster declaration in place, because when that disaster declaration goes away, any further stimulus money that comes down the pipe, we are not entitled to, because we have claimed we do not have an emergency disaster, and we would be the only state in the union if we ended that ended it," Madden said. "So, I am not going to be the first in that."
Pennsylvanians deserve 'better’
Based on statements made on Tuesday, Wolf appeared particularly perturbed by what he considered a partisan celebration in regard to the ruling, raising questions about how likely the governor is to reach across the aisle to resolve these issues.
"Yesterday, Harrisburg republicans celebrated while thousands upon thousands in our state continue to suffer and even more worry about what this virus could bring to them and their families this fall. The president could do nothing more than stare at his cellphone and send out tweets, share messages of hate, messages of division, messages of disinformation," Wolf said. "They’re celebrating a court ruling while refusing to help anybody but themselves. We in Pennsylvania deserve much, much better than that."
What kind of solutions a negotiation between Wolf’s administration and the General Assembly can produce is anybody’s guess, but based on the most recent figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, some mitigation efforts are necessary to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus, which has seen increasing numbers in the commonwealth recently. On Tuesday, 1,151 new cases of COVID-19 were reported along with six deaths, bringing the commonwealth’s totals to 146,214 cases and 7,875 deaths.
In a statement released from Wolf’s office Tuesday afternoon, the governor adamantly defended his administration’s early actions while admitting to some mistakes, called out the federal government for having "dithered" while the state government took action, and declared that he will continue his efforts to contain the virus.
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"I believe the vast majority of Pennsylvanians understand what we had to do in the beginning was necessary to keep people safe before we had the resources to reopen safely," Wolf said in a statement. "And the vast majority don’t buy into conspiracy theories or fear mongering from the President or Harrisburg Republicans about this virus. They wear masks. They keep distance. They are smart about how they interact with others. They are responsible. And contrary to the misinformation from the legislature, we are reopened. And we’ve been able to manage outbreaks and mitigate risk successfully, while trying to bring some normalcy to our lives. And right now, Pennsylvania is a leader in the region in how we’ve kept deaths and sickness low. I will continue to do what is necessary to keep people safe and contain the virus. That’s the key. Containing the virus is the only way to protect our health and keep our economy going."