Appeals court allows Pennsylvania to restrict crowd size

A block of Sansom Street in Center City is closed to traffic to allow expanded outdoor dining. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A block of Sansom Street in Center City is closed to traffic to allow expanded outdoor dining. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pennsylvania can restore pandemic restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, putting on hold a judge’s ruling that threw out statewide limits on crowd size and other measures meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, may once again enforce size limits on gatherings while it appeals the lower court order.

U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV in Pittsburgh, an appointee of President Donald Trump, had ruled against the state’s size limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, saying they violate citizens’ constitutional rights to assemble. The state has been enforcing a gathering limit of more than 25 people for events held indoors and more than 250 people for those held outside.

Stickman’s Sept. 14 ruling prompted many Pennsylvania school districts to allow more fans in the stands at high school football games and other athletic contests.

“We are disappointed but undeterred,” said attorney Thomas W. King III, who represents the plaintiffs.

The office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro asked the Philadelphia-based appeals court to intervene after Stickman declined to stay his own order. Shapiro’s office said crowd-size limits and other statewide public health orders are “life-saving mitigation tools” against the virus, and warned that “eliminating the congregate limits during the pendency of this appeal will result in people’s deaths.”

More than 160,000 people in Pennsylvania have contracted the virus since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and more than 8,100 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, according to state health officials.

Stickman’s ruling also invalidated key parts of the Wolf administration’s early pandemic response, including his orders requiring people to stay at home and shuttering thousands of businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining.” Wolf had since eased many of the restrictions the plaintiffs objected to in their lawsuit, and he said he has no plans to reinstate them.

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

But Stickman sided with plaintiffs that included hair salons, drive-in movie theaters, a farmer’s market vendor, a horse trainer and several Republican officeholders in ruling that Wolf’s policies were overreaching, arbitrary and violated citizens’ constitutional rights.

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