A federal judge struck down Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders restricting mass gatherings and shutting down business amid the Covid-19 pandemic as unconstitutional Monday, as lockdown restrictions and business closures continue to be a major source of contention as the pandemic stretches on.
U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, ruled that Wolf’s order restricting indoor and outdoor gatherings violated the First Amendment’s Freedom of Assembly Clause, and also struck down orders directing business closures and the state’s stay-at-home order as violating the Fourteenth Amendment.
The lawsuit was filed in May by four Western Pennsylvania counties, as well as business owners and lawmakers, and their specific grievances included a March stay-at-home order that required all but “life-sustaining” businesses to close, as well as a subsequent waiver program allowing certain businesses to reopen that was criticized for being applied in an uneven manner.
Pennsylvania’s current state guidelines had already reopened most businesses with social distancing requirements and capacity restrictions, and limited mass gatherings to 25 people indoors or 250 people outdoors, but officials noted that reopenings could be rolled back if the public health situation were to worsen.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously upheld Wolf’s orders in response to a similar legal challenge.
Wisconsin’s stay at home order was also overturned in May by the state’s Supreme Court.
“The court believes that defendants undertook their actions in a well-intentioned effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus,” Stickman wrote. “But even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered.”
Stay at home orders and forced business closures have become a source of controversy amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as President Donald Trump and Republicans have railed against the restrictive measures while business owners protest the loss of their livelihoods. In addition to challenges targeting entire state-wide orders such as in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, industry-specific restrictions have also been protested in court by individual business owners: neighboring New Jersey has faced lawsuits by movie theaters and gyms over their continued closures (which have since been lifted), for instance, while bar owners sued Texas over their closure and New York City restaurant owners challenged the city’s ban on indoor dining, which will lift later this month.
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The state has not yet said whether it will appeal the ruling to try and reinstate the lockdown orders, with a spokesperson for Wolf telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, “We’re aware of the ruling and are reviewing the decision.”
Wolf’s COVID-19 business closures, limit on gatherings unconstitutional, federal court rules (Philadelphia Inquirer)