Wolf Retrenches Sweeping Order, Amid Complaints, Lawsuits

Mar 20, 2020

Under fire from business groups and Republican lawmakers and facing lawsuits over a broad shutdown order designed to slow the spreading coronavirus, Gov. Tom Wolf's administration defended its actions as critical to preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, but it also made a series of concessions.

Wolf defended the order — issued late Thursday to sharpen an earlier directive — by saying in a video news conference Friday that the restrictions are necessary to prevent Pennsylvania's hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with people stricken by the virus.

Even before Thursday's order, skyrocketing unemployment compensation filings in Pennsylvania this week smashed the state record, underscoring how many businesses had already closed or shed workers.

Wolf, a Democrat, said his “heart goes out to everybody in our commonwealth,” but he also said that difficult decisions made now will make it easier on health care workers later as new cases continue to surge.

“These are uncharted waters and, in this situation, we’re not going to do everything perfectly, but we’re going to do the best we can to prevent our hospital system from crashing,” Wolf said.

On Thursday evening, Wolf directed all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close their physical locations and said state government would begin to enforce the edict starting early Saturday.

It was among the toughest actions by a U.S. governor to combat the spread of COVID-19. Wolf's order drew loud complaints that it threatened critical supply chains and economic devastation, and a law firm and a gun store challenged it in court.

By Friday evening, Wolf's administration issued new guidance that granted exceptions to the timber industry, coal mining, hotels, accountants, laundromats and law firms permitted by the courts.

Wolf also said there’s a “robust waiver process” for businesses that believe they should be exempt from the shutdown order.

Still, it remained unclear Friday whether cities, counties or towns would go along with the order and use police or sanctions to close businesses that defied Wolf's order.

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CASES AND HOSPITALS

The Health Department reported a sharp rise in the number of confirmed cases on Friday, adding 83 in the past day for a total of more than 260. There has been one death from COVID-19 in the state.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said cases will continue to surge and that the Wolf administration is working with hospitals to determine their capability to handle such an increase and looking at every option to add bed space, staffing and supplies.

Levine also said they are looking at whether beds for patients with less serious ailments can be created in hotels. Wolf's administration also has told hospitals to postpone elective procedures. Still, western Pennsylvania's biggest hospital system, UPMC, on Friday said that it would not put off elective surgeries, and Dr. John Williams, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said it did not see “widespread community transmission yet.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Meanwhile, schools have been shut down through March, at least.

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JOBLESS CLAIMS

Pennsylvania's jobless claims filed this week set a state record, the state Department of Labor and Industry said.

It did not immediately say what the previous record was. But a review of weekly data going back to 1987 shows a high point of 61,000 in early 2010, when the effects of the Great Recession were taking hold.

The department said that it had fielded more than 170,000 claims filed Monday through Wednesday, including 70,000 on Tuesday alone.

The agency is not releasing figures for Thursday and Friday, saying that the federal government told them that the figures for this week are embargoed until next Thursday.

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LAWSUITS

One lawsuit filed a Harrisburg-area law firm challenged the governor's right to shutter law offices throughout the state.

By ordering law firms to close their doors, Wolf deprived citizens of their right to counsel, lawyer William Costopoulos argued in court papers. Costopoulos' petition noted that the high court, in ordering the closure of state courts this week, created several exceptions for emergency petitions involving custody, protection from abuse and other matters.

In an interview, Costopoulos also said the executive branch doesn’t have a right to meddle in the judicial branch.

“The governor, though his intentions are well meaning in light of this pandemic, does not have the authority to usurp either the Supreme Court or the Constitution when it comes to the practice of law,” Costopoulos said.

In the second suit, a law firm, a gun shop and a would-be gun buyer asked the Supreme Court to stop Wolf from shuttering businesses determined to be not "life-sustaining,” arguing he lacks that authority under state law.

The suit said the state's gun shops “have been left with insufficient guidance as to their potential status as 'life sustaining.'”

It also challenges Wolf's order on Second Amendment and other constitutional grounds, saying the right to bear arms “is the epitome of life-sustaining.”

The high court ordered the Wolf administration file a response by late Friday.

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ENFORCEMENT

Wolf's order Thursday night said more than 150 types of businesses had to close their physical locations. By Friday, that shrank to about 140.

Friday's guidance said closures are enforceable through criminal penalties, including under health, safety and liquor laws, and that discipline would be progressive that begins with a warning, and focused on businesses where people congregate.

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OPEN AND CLOSED

Among those allowed to stay open are gas stations, grocery stores, beer distributors, drugstores, funeral homes and building materials stores. It also clarified that emergency building, highway, utility and bridge repairs are still permitted. Restaurants and bars can continue to offer carry-out, delivery and drive-thru food and drink service, but not dine-in service.

Businesses under shutdown orders range from vending machine operators to building contractors to many types of manufacturers, along with professional offices, such architects and engineers.

Retailers ordered to close include car dealers, bookstores, clothing stores, furniture stores, florists, office supply stores and lawn and garden stores. One category went from open to closed: civic and social organizations.

Even within the shrinking number of retail outlets, practices were changing rapidly. Convenience store giant Wawa said Friday that its coffee and fountain drinks were no longer available as self-service.