Pennsylvania asks judge to retain limits on crowd size

Orange barriers enclose chairs and tables that will be used for dining along Sixth Street between Liberty and Penn avenues

Orange barriers enclose chairs and tables that will be used for dining along Sixth Street between Liberty and Penn avenues on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 in downtown Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pennsylvania’s top lawyer asked a federal judge Wednesday to retain Gov. Tom Wolf’s limits on crowd size, at least for now, warning that allowing large groups to congregate during a legal battle over Wolf’s public health orders “will result in people’s deaths” from the coronavirus.

The office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro asked the judge, an appointee of President Donald Trump, to delay enforcement of his ruling that many of the Democratic governor’s pandemic shutdown orders were unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV in Pittsburgh ruled against the state’s current size limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, saying they violate citizens’ constitutional right 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.

Shapiro’s office, which is representing the Wolf administration in its planned appeal, said in court documents Wednesday that Stickman’s ruling “does not consider the manner in which COVID-19 is spread or the rationale for adopting the congregate limits.” Its request for a stay also pointed out that other federal judges, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, have upheld Wolf’s pandemic shutdown orders.

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“The split in authority created by the Court’s opinion makes it difficult, if not impossible, for (the Wolf administration) to manage the pandemic effectively and has created confusion and uncertainty throughout Pennsylvania,” the state’s motion said.

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.

Attorney Thomas W. King III, who represents the plaintiffs, said Wednesday the plaintiffs will “vigorously” oppose the state’s request for a stay, which King said would amount to a reimposition of “unconstitutional restraints” on Pennsylvania residents. The plaintiffs include hair salons, drive-in movie theaters, a farmer’s market vendor, a horse trainer and several Republican officeholders.

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