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COVID-19 restrictions by Gov. Wolf, Dr. Levine ‘unconstitutional,’ judge rules

BUTLER COUNTY, Pa. — A judge ruled in favor of several local counties in a federal lawsuit filed against Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine over COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and orders to close all “non-life-sustaining” businesses.

Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties were plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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The judge said the actions of Wolf and Levine were taken with “good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” but they were unconstitutional.

“The Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency,” the judge’s opinion read. It went on to say those lines were crossed.

The governor’s office released the following statement regarding the judge’s ruling:

"The administration is disappointed with the result and will seek a stay of the decision and file an appeal. 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. This decision is especially worrying as Pennsylvania and the rest of the country are likely to face a challenging time with the possible resurgence of COVID-19 and the flu in the fall and winter.

"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.

“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.

According to the Pittsburgh Business Times, lawyers argue that, barring a stay, the indoor and outdoor gathering limits can’t be enforced.

The judge ruled the limit on gatherings, which is 25 people for indoors and 250 people for outdoors, violates the First Amendment. It was also ruled the 14th Amendment was violated when all non-life-sustaining businesses closed.

“I jumped for joy.”

The owner of Angelo’s in Washington County said the news of the judge’s ruling was monumental.

“I was elated. I got a text message from County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughn, and I think I wrote back, 'holy, holy, oh my God, oh my God,” Michael Passalacqua said.

He got emotional talking about the ruling handed down Monday.

“I have a lot of friends whose restaurants are closed and will not reopen. I have a lot of friends who are teetering on that place. Twenty-five percent occupancy, let’s be very clear about it, that’s a bankrupt level of business plan,” he said.

Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaugh said the decision will govern how the county moves forward.

“This will establish a rule of law and define the boundaries by which the governor can declare orders,” she said.

“To do the right thing for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but now at least some common sense is being interjected into this," said Chris Young.

Young has owned Prima Capelli Salon for 10 years in Butler. He’s also one of several plaintiffs in the case.

“I want to be treated just like Walmart and everybody else. I want to be treated fairly. Whenever you tell small businesses that they cannot do something that big-box businesses can, that’s unconstitutional as the judge stated,” Capelli said.

“People are still dying out here.”

Channel 11′s Amy Hudak talked to people torn about the issue. The majority want to see our economy humming again and restaurants fully open, but they understand the dangers of the pandemic and don’t want to be responsible.

“People are still dying out here,” said Chad Kendrick.

Kendrick said the numbers don’t lie and fully reopening bars and restaurants too soon could have deadly consequences.

“Too many people at one time. It will definitely spike,” Kendrick said.

That’s the reasoning behind the state health department and Allegheny County’s phased reopening plans to closely monitor the COVID-19 data trends, and quickly adjust if cases connected to bars and restaurants climb.

“I think the way they’re going about everything, it keeps everyone safe,” said Evan Wallace.

But there is no argument — restaurants and bars are suffering, and countless businesses are no longer able to sustain themselves as weeks turn to months.

“It’s hurting our economy and too many families are being hurt by this,” said Stephen Burger.

Burger was here from Maryland on a business trip and shared his observations.

“Pittsburgh seems to be more shut down than some of the other cities I’ve been to for work, but they’re definitely taking all the precautions,” Burger said.