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Court tosses ruling against Pennsylvania COVID-19 measures

  • Michael Rubinkam/Associated Press
  • Claudia Lauer/The Associated Press
FILE PHOTO: A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks past a boarded up Wine and Spirits store in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 16, 2020.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks past a boarded up Wine and Spirits store in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 16, 2020.

(Philadelphia) — A federal appeals court has dismissed a judge’s ruling that threw out Gov. Tom Wolf’s sweeping COVID-19 restrictions, saying the case is now moot because statewide mitigation measures have expired and Pennsylvania voters have since constrained a governor’s emergency powers.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that since the Wolf administration’s stay-at-home orders, limits on crowd size and business closures have been lifted and are no longer in effect, there is “consequently no relief that this court can grant.”

Republican state lawmakers and many conservatives and business owners had railed against the state’s pandemic restrictions, calling them excessive, inconsistent and unconstitutional. In May, Pennsylvania voters approved amendments to the state constitution that give lawmakers more say over the length of a disaster declaration and the management of it.

“The parties agree that the governor’s orders are no longer in effect and that he has been stripped of his power to unilaterally act in connection with this pandemic,” the three-judge panel wrote. “Thus, the case is moot.”

The appeals court instructed U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV to vacate his nearly year-old ruling that Wolf’s pandemic restrictions were overreaching and arbitrary and violated citizens’ constitutional rights. The appeals court had previously put the ruling on hold while the Wolf administration appealed.

Stickman, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, had sided with plaintiffs that included hair salons, drive-in movie theaters, a farmer’s market vendor, a horse trainer and several Republican officeholders in their lawsuit against Wolf, a Democrat, and his health secretary.

Other federal and state courts had rejected various challenges to Wolf’s authority to impose public health orders in response to the pandemic.

Wolf’s spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger, said Wednesday the administration was pleased by the decision to vacate Stickman’s ruling. An email seeking comment was sent to an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Writing separately, 3rd Circuit Judge Kent Jordan said that while he agreed with the majority there is no longer an active legal dispute to resolve, he noted the Wolf administration has said the constitutional amendments do not affect a state health secretary’s disease-prevention authority to issue mask-wearing and stay-at-home orders or shut down schools and businesses deemed nonessential.

But he said the court has been “given little reason to doubt” Wolf administration assurances that it does not plan to restore such statewide mitigation measures, even as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has led to sharply rising infections and hospitalizations.

Because the court sees “no reasonable expectation that they will be reimposed,” he wrote, “the case is over.”

Wolf’s spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that the administration has no plans to reimpose statewide mitigation measures.

Wolf is instead urging people to get vaccinated, as “there is a correlation between increased vaccination rates and lower COVID-19 case counts,” said Kensinger, who stressed ”the importance of eligible Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Nearly 64% of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jordan also wrote that the court was not ruling on the merits of the plaintiffs’ case. The decision, he wrote, “should not be read as … indicating a failure to understand that there are real-world consequences flowing from governmental responses to the unprecedented (at least in our lifetime) pandemic we are yet working our way through.”


In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Wednesday:

Philly imposes mask, vaccine mandates

New mask mandates will go into effect at midnight Wednesday in Philadelphia, and new city hires will be required to be vaccinated starting Sept. 1, city officials announced.

The restrictions and policy changes come as the city’s count of new COVID-19 cases has risen exponentially over the past six weeks. The city is now reporting nearly 200 cases per day, up from an average in the low 20s in early July.

“I’m upset that people just can’t act in the way they are supposed to act … and do what’s good for everybody,” said a visibly irritated Mayor Jim Kenney, speaking at a news conference. He pleaded for people to “please just get vaccinated.”

Starting at midnight, restaurants and businesses must enforce mask-wearing inside unless they can verify that all employees and patrons are vaccinated, said acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole.

The city will also require masks inside city buildings and at outdoor, unseated events of 1,000 or more people. It was unclear if that mandate would impact the huge Made in America festival over Labor Day weekend, but Kenney and Bettigole said people should be prepared to wear masks at such events until cases decline.

Bettigole said cooling centers were instituting a mask mandate even earlier — at noon Wednesday — because of the vulnerable populations that tend to use them.

The city will also require new hires as of Sept. 1 to be fully vaccinated. Existing employees will either be required to be vaccinated or wear two masks — a paper mask underneath a two-ply cloth mask — while working indoors with others.

A day earlier, Wolf announced that some 25,000 employees of Pennsylvania’s prisons and state health care and congregate care facilities have about a month to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or take weekly tests for the virus.

Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.

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