GOP can’t force Gov. Tom Wolf to end coronavirus disaster declaration, Pa. Supreme Court rules

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf addresses reporters at a press conference in Harrisburg. (Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

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Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature cannot force Gov. Tom Wolf to end his coronavirus disaster declaration, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, handing the Democratic governor a victory that could come into play this fall should the state see a surge that necessitates another shutdown.

In March, Wolf issued the emergency order as Pennsylvania began reporting its first COVID-19 infections. The declaration greatly expanded Wolf’s powers, allowing him to suspend regulations and control travel within a “disaster area.” At the same time, Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine ordered the closure of all businesses except those deemed “life-sustaining” to slow the spread of the virus and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

From the beginning, Republican leaders in the legislature decried the closures as unfair to small businesses, and pushed to reopen sectors of the economy through legislation, which Wolf vetoed.

On June 10, Republicans and a handful of Democrats gave final approval to a resolution that leadership said would compel Wolf to terminate the disaster declaration. GOP lawmakers argued state law provides the option as a check on the executive branch, while Wolf said he’s empowered to approve or reject the resolution, as he can with legislation.

Wolf also contended that ending the order would not allow businesses to fully reopen, as his administration’s power to impose restrictions comes from a part of state law governing disease prevention. Rather, it would rescind protections that were enacted in response to the pandemic — and the subsequent economic downturn — including the suspension of licensing requirements for health-care workers and a temporary moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“Ending the disaster declaration would not reopen anything. It just wouldn’t,” Wolf said in June. “And anybody who says differently is wrong.”

As Wolf vowed to take lawmakers to court, Republican leaders in the Senate filed suit in Commonwealth Court to compel Wolf to terminate his order. Wolf asked the state Supreme Court to consider the case directly, which the justices agreed to do.

This isn’t the only reopening court battle playing out in Pennsylvania. Still pending is a Republican suit to force the Wolf administration to comply with a subpoena for documents related to a chaotic waiver process that allowed some non-essential businesses to reopen while others had to remain shuttered.

This breaking story will be updated.

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