HARRISBURG, Pa. - 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.
“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.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Wednesday:
A Pennsylvania county has acknowledged that tests it purchased from a local biotech start-up produced “potentially inaccurate” results for thousands of people.
Chester County vowed this week to reach out to those who received the “questionable test results” in late May and to appoint a consultant to review the purchase of the antibody tests, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The news comes days after the newspaper reported that the county spent $13 million in federal pandemic aid on a no-bid contract to Malvern-based Advaite. The testing program was intended to identify essential workers who had developed disease-fighting antibodies, which show up in the blood after COVID-19 infection.
In the first few weeks after testing began May 7, the tests produced results that appeared to be accurate. But two weeks later, the percentage of people testing positive for coronavirus antibodies began spiking to levels far above what was plausible, based on the prevalence of the virus in the area. The county eventually shelved the program June 2.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says antibody tests should not be used to diagnose COVID-19. But Chester health officials and their lab partner decided to interpret certain results as signaling a current infection. Patients with those results received emails stating: “You may have COVID-19. You are likely contagious. You should isolate yourself at home.”
The county, though, never informed those who may have received false alarms, nor did it disclose the questionable results — about 6,100 of the 19,425 tests it conducted — on its website.
Chester County said Tuesday that its three-member Board of Commissioners would appoint an “independent legal consultant" to review the process associated with sourcing and procuring the antibody tests.
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