Wolf administration asks Pennsylvanians to avoid large gatherings even after judge's ruling

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine addresses the media on July 28, 2020, in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine on Monday declined to directly address a federal judge’s ruling that invalidated some of the Wolf administration’s most-criticized pandemic restrictions, saying that any response was in the hands of attorneys.

Federal Judge William Stickman ruled Monday that the administration’s directives that closed much of the state’s businesses and restricted the size of gatherings, imposed in the spring to combat the spread of the coronavirus, were unconstitutional.

While those restrictions have largely been lifted in the course of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, the governor has unilaterally chosen to extend his emergency powers several times – over the objections of the Republican-controlled Legislature – and has indicated that the restrictions could be reimposed if the pandemic was to worsen again.

Asked during her daily COVID-19 news briefing whether the administration would appeal the ruling, she said the decision was up to the Office of General Counsel.

“It’s hard for me to comment at this time, the decision just came down today,” Levine said. “And again, our attorneys are looking very carefully at it. And so then we will determine our course, but we have not yet made any decisions at this time.”

She also stated that Pennsylvanians should continue to try to avoid large gatherings, regardless of how the legal proceedings unfold.

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“We strongly recommend that people continue to practice the efforts to stop the spread of this virus,” she said. “And so of course that means mask wearing, that means hand sanitizer and hand washing, and it also means the social distancing that we have discussed and avoiding large gatherings. So it’s critically important, no matter what the court case is, that people follow these very important guidelines, and are united in doing that to stop the spread of the virus.”

Republican legislative leaders, on the other hand, hailed Stickman’s ruling as a victory for Pennsylvanians’ individual freedoms.

“For the millions of unemployed Pennsylvanians, the thousands of small business owners that have seen their livelihoods permanently ended, and all those looking for some relief from these unilaterally imposed, inconsistent and contradictory shutdown orders, this opinion offers some form of hope that a return to normalcy might be on the horizon,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said in a joint statement. “Judge Stickman’s opinion confirms what Pennsylvania Republicans have been saying all along: The Wolf administration’s use of emergency authority is unconstitutionally overbroad.”

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman called on Wolf to stop issuing vetoes of bills passed by lawmakers that seek to alter the administration’s pandemic and reopening guidelines.

“While we work to protect lives, we cannot disregard the civil liberties of Pennsylvanians,” he wrote in a news release. “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. We remain open and willing to work with Governor Wolf on a real plan … that puts Pennsylvania first. It is far past time for him to abandon his go-it-alone approach and come to the table to work with the General Assembly on real solutions.”