Judge Rules Pennsylvania's 'New Normal' Pandemic Restrictions Are Unconstitutional, Sides With Small Businesses

A federal judge on Monday ruled Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's executive actions to close or restrict non–life sustaining businesses during the coronavirus pandemic are unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV, an appointee of President Donald Trump, sided with several small businesses who filed suit against the governor, including hair salons and drive-in movie theaters. The complaint argued that the state's pandemic policies are clear examples of government overreach. In his written opinion, Stickman said the U.S. Constitution cannot accept the concept of a "new normal" in which the basic liberties of the people can be suppressed by "open-ended" emergency measures.

Stickman's Monday ruling says the Democratic governor's actions—including restaurant capacity limits, indoor mask mandate, alcohol sale restrictions and a ban on indoor groups of more than 25 people—likely had good intentions. But he noted "the authority of government is not unfettered" even if the restrictions were put in place "to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus."

The state has recorded more than 145,000 COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic in March, including over 7,800 people who have died as a result.

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"[T]he congregate gathering limits imposed by defendants' mitigation orders violate the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment; (2) that the stay-at-home and business closure components of defendants' orders violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) that the business closure components of defendants' orders violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," reads Stickman's declaratory, binding judgment.

Butler, Greene, Washington and Fayette counties were the listed plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit against the Wolf administration. They cited the unfair burden placed on mom-and-pop stores versus the massive profits being raked in during the pandemic by large corporate retailers such as Amazon.

The state's two top Republican lawmakers, House Speaker Bryan Cutler and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, issued a joint statement praising the ruling: "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."

Restaurant, bar and other small business owners across the state have recently expressed their contempt for the ongoing pandemic restrictions, which they say are excessive after six months of enforcement. Wolf lifted or relaxed many of the capacity and crowd size restrictions—as did many governors across the country—but a mid-summer crackdown drew the ire of many previously quiet small business owners.

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"I can see [wearing] the mask now. But the rest of it is stupid," said Rod Ambrogi, owner of Pittsburgh's Al's Cafe, in a Washington Post interview about rallying local pub owners to defy the governor's rules. "There are people going out of business every day around here."

Wolf's office published its weekly announcement Monday noting "our percent positivity increased again this week, even while the number of new cases dropped, a sign that this virus continues to affect Pennsylvanians." He went on to urge state residents to continue social distancing and wearing masks in all public places.

Stickman's Monday ruling concluded: "The Constitution cannot accept the concept of a 'new normal' where the basic liberties of the people can be subordinated to open-ended emergency mitigation measures.… Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by defendants crossed those lines. It is the duty of the court to declare those actions unconstitutional."

Newsweek reached out to the governor's office as well as several GOP state representatives for additional reactions Monday afternoon.

pennsylvania mask restrictions lifted judge
A federal judge on Monday ruled Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's executive actions to close or restrict non–life sustaining businesses during the coronavirus pandemic are unconstitutional. MATTHEW HORWOOD / Contributor/Getty Images
Judge Rules Pennsylvania's 'New Normal' Pandemic Restrictions Are Unconstitutional, Sides With Small Businesses | Business