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Gov. Wolf says he will appeal federal judge’s ruling on Pa. COVID-19 mandates

PITTSBURGH — A federal judge ruled Monday that the actions taken by Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf and Department of Health Sec. Dr. Rachel Levine to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the spring were unconstitutional -- but Wolf issued a strong message against it Tuesday.

In a prepared statement, Wolf said this ruling will be appealed and that the actions he and other state officials took in the early stages of the pandemic were “necessary to keep people safe before we had the resources to reopen safely.”

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Meanwhile, the judge said the actions of Wolf and Levine were taken with “good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” but they were unconstitutional. This was in favor of a federal lawsuit filed by Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.

The lawsuit was directed at the state’s business closure order and the stay-at-home orders issued in March, as well as the indoor and outdoor gathering limitations.

There’s no timetable for how long the appeal could take, which puts the governor’s ability to enact another stay-at-home order and business shutdown in limbo.

In the interim, what does that mean for businesses? John Longstreet, of the Restaurant and Lodging Association, told Channel 11 immediate changes aren’t likely.

It doesn’t deal with restaurant occupancy or the percentage of fire code capacity. It only deals with gathering size for indoor events, which is currently capped at 25, and outdoor -- which is capped at 250," Longstreet said. “If the judge grants a stay to the order that the judge put forth, the order could essentially be put on hold until the appellate court hears it -- which could be months away.”

You can read Wolf’s full statement below:

"There’s no sense debating a ruling that will be appealed. Two of three federal judges upheld what we did. But what’s not up for debate is that our early and decisive action saved lives. While the federal government dithered, Pennsylvania took action. Our hospitals were never overwhelmed and research tells us thousands of lives were saved.

So would we, in hindsight, do some things differently? Of course.

Would I follow the irresponsible demands of the President or the Republican legislature? Absolutely not. And that’s the choice we all have to make: do we want to be responsible - to our own families and others - and take steps to mitigate the spread of this virus that’s taken 200,000 American lives? Or do we not?

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. 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.

We will appeal, and we will take that appeal as far as necessary to ensure we can do that. I want to reassure people that may be nervous or worried about what’s ahead this fall: no matter what, we will find a way to keep Pennsylvanians safe.

And I’m going to keep urging the federal government and Republicans in the legislature to take steps to help workers, families and small businesses. Yesterday, Harrisburg Republicans “celebrated” while thousands upon thousands in our state continue to suffer and even more worry about what the virus could bring this fall.

And the President could do nothing but stare at his cell phone and share messages of hate, division and disinformation. We need the President and the legislature to get serious about our recovery, and that starts with being responsible about the virus. They are celebrating a court ruling while refusing to help anyone but themselves.

We deserve better, and I’m going to keep holding their feet to the fire to stop playing politics with this disease and stop fighting me, and start living up to the responsibilities of their offices. I’ll continue to keep Pennsylvania’s residents and economy safe by taking the virus seriously and helping those in need.”

On Tuesday, Levine released the following statement on the ruling:

“The orders that the governor and I put in place on mask-wearing, mandatory telework, worker safety, building safety and hospital safety are all still in effect to protect Pennsylvanians, especially our frontline workers,” Dr. Levine said. "These existing – and still valid – orders were put in place in the absence of any federal leadership at a time when life-saving decisions needed to be made. Saving lives has been the cornerstone of all of our decisions, including the orders referenced in the case that have since expired.

"We must do the right thing and continue to social distance, contain, and mitigate this virus – all vital public health actions that are accepted worldwide to prevent the spread of disease.

“As the public health agency for the commonwealth, we have a responsibility to advise the public on how to protect themselves and their loved ones from this virus. That has been our charge since before the first cases were reported in Pennsylvania and it will continue to be our charge until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, regardless of court rulings that may seek to downplay the validity of our role or actions.”

According to a release, the court ruling also does not impact any of the business occupancy restrictions currently in place, including those applicable to personal care services, indoor recreation and health and wellness facilities, entertainment venues, and bars and restaurants.

“While our aggressive and appropriate mitigation efforts have kept case counts low, we must continue to take important steps to protect public health with the possible resurgence of COVID-19 and the flu in the fall and winter,” added Dr. Levine.

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