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Politics & Government
All the latest updates and news about the coronavirus.

New COVID Measures May Be Backed With More Enforcement

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On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced sweeping new restrictions Thursday to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And while it remains to be seen how strictly the rules will be enforced when they take effect this weekend, state agencies say they are “prepared to take more strict enforcement actions” – and at least one local critic of an earlier round of restrictions is tempering his criticism this time.

The new rules would prohibit indoor dining and temporarily shutter indoor facilities like movie theaters, performance spaces, bowling alleys, and arcades. Retail businesses will be held to 50 percent of their in-store capacity, and school sports are suspended. The orders also limit outdoor gatherings to 50 people and indoor gatherings to 10, except for houses of worship.

Since the spring, when Wolf issued a stay-at-home order, state agencies have generally sought to educate violators and encourage them to comply. They’ve resorted to imposing fines or temporarily revoking businesses’ operating licenses only in a small number of cases. But on Friday afternoon, three agencies said they might adopt a tougher approach this time around.

“Seven months into the pandemic, the commonwealth is reviewing its enforcement mechanisms and is prepared to take more strict enforcement actions on chronic violators,” said a statement sent by the Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and Pennsylvania Department of State. “It is imperative that we save lives and protect the public by ensuring all necessary mitigation efforts are being followed.”

Those agencies – along with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and Department of Health – are responsible for enforcing coronavirus restrictions at the state level and primarily at bars, restaurants, and other establishments. Local officials will also play a role – though it remains to be seen how actively they do so.

Local officials and businesses bridled at Wolf’s first round of shutdown orders, which were issued when the coronavirus first took hold this spring. Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier said he would refuse to prosecute businesses that violated the spring shutdown, and he said in May that Wolf’s order – which required all businesses that were not ”‘life-sustaining” to close – had “no rational basis” and was unenforceable.

Around the same time, Butler, Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties sued the state in federal court, arguing that limits on gatherings violated citizens’ constitutional rights to assemble. Federal trial judge William Stickman sided with the plaintiffs, who also included business owners and Republican officeholders, in September. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put Stickman’s ruling on hold, pending an appeal by the state attorney general’s office.

Following Wolf’s latest COVID mandates, Lozier at least appears to have softened his criticism. On Friday, the Beaver County official said that the new mandates that limit businesses and gatherings are more concise and can be enforced by police on a case-by-case basis.

The new restrictions are less broad than the initial round in some respects. In the spring, the Wolf Administration’s efforts to distinguish between essential and non-essential businesses were widely criticized, in part for a cumbersome waiver-application process whose results were criticized as arbitrary. The new orders do not broadly shut down retail activity, which has not proven to contribute much to the virus’ spread, but instead limit the number of people permitted inside a business. 

Still, Lozier noted that local law enforcement departments are small and lack the resources to respond to complaints about masking. If officers were to respond, he said, they would risk being  exposed to the virus, only to issue a $10 or $25 fine. But mask disputes that lead to “a breach of the peace,” he added, should be dealt with.

A spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police said the department is still reviewing the governor’s new order but that, in the meantime, officers will respond to 911 calls and complaints about businesses that don’t seem to be in compliance with Wolf’s mandate. A spokesperson for Allegheny County said it will continue to follow Wolf’s guidance.

“We will continue to do what we have been doing,” Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs said in an email. The county health department’s “field response team will be out to verify compliance and provide education” to restaurants that violate the restrictions, Downs said.

And she added that, if businesses that must be closed violate the mandate, the county “will become involved and can enforce with fines and other measures up to and including ordering closure.”

Wolf’s latest mandate comes as COVID-19 cases have soared to record levels nationwide. In Pennsylvania, more than 12,200 have died from the disease, and more than 430,000 have had confirmed infections, according to the Department of Health. On Friday, 5,852 people in the state were hospitalized following infection, with 1,191 placed in the intensive care unit, the state Department of Health said.