Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.
HARRISBURG — As legal challenges began to mount Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf revised his order directing all but “life-sustaining” businesses to shut down, allowing accountants, tax preparers, manufacturing supply companies, and some lawyers to resume operations.
Wolf’s changes came after two separate law firms asked the state’s highest court for an emergency injunction on parts of the directive, contending that the governor overstepped his authority under the state Constitution.
They included the Harrisburg-based law firm of Costopoulos, Foster & Fields, which sued for the ability to reopen, and a separate law firm suing on behalf of itself, a gun shop, and a potential gun buyer. Among the arguments: that the would-be gun buyer from Bucks County had been unable to purchase a firearm because shops in his area had shut down.
Joshua Prince, chief counsel at the Civil Rights Defense Firm P.C., said in a statement that his firm “will not stand idly by and permit our elected officials to eviscerate our residents’ inviolate constitutional and statutory rights.”
The Wolf administration has claimed broad powers in handling the public health emergency caused by the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.
Wolf signed an emergency disaster declaration on March 6, after the state confirmed the first coronavirus cases. In doing so, he triggered a part of Pennsylvania’s emergency management law that vastly expands a governor’s powers. They include everything from ordering mass evacuations to limiting or outright halting liquor and firearm sales.
As the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise this week, Wolf on Thursday issued an expansive directive that sent the state’s business community into a tailspin of panic and confusion. It required all but the most essential businesses to close. His administration said “life-sustaining” businesses that could remain open include grocery stores, gas stations, farms, and transit systems.
Businesses ordered to shut down their physical operations included car dealers, lawn and garden stores, specialty food stores, and furniture stores.
His order, which took effect immediately and is in place indefinitely, also applied to offices providing legal, accounting, architectural, and tax services. It also shut down swaths of the manufacturing sector.
In revising the list Friday, Wolf relaxed restrictions on accounting and tax preparation firms, specialty food stores, laundromats, and dry cleaners.
Law firms can operate, but with restrictions. The Administrative Office of the Courts said Friday that president judges can permit “restricted access” to some lawyers and legal staff “to participate in court functions deemed essential.” That means that some firms could reopen their offices for specific cases.
On the flip side, however, Wolf crossed off civic and social organizations from the list of businesses that could remain open. They will now have to shut their doors.
The governor said that unlike shutdown orders he has issued since the virus began spreading in the state, this one will be enforced by the state police, the state Departments of Health and Agriculture, and the Liquor Control Board. Enforcement begins Monday at 8 a.m., a change from the governor’s original plan to begin enforcing the directive on Saturday.
On Friday, Wolf said the decision “was not made easily,” but was necessary to ward off the chilling possibility of a catastrophic spike in cases that will overwhelm hospitals and health care workers.
“The only way to contain this virus is to take aggressive, decisive action,” Wolf said. “We can recover faster, stronger, and more quickly if we act now and prevent more people from becoming seriously ill.”
As of Friday, Pennsylvania had 83 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 268. The virus has spread from two counties initially to 26 counties. On Wednesday, health officials announced the state’s first death from the virus, a 55-year-old man from Northampton County.
Earlier Friday, the state’s leading manufacturers had asked Wolf to revise his order, saying it was blocking essential supply chains from providing products to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
David N. Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said Friday that the governor’s office had not contacted him or other manufacturing trade groups before issuing the order, which he called “rash,” “overly broad,” and “imprecise.”
Taylor said the order, which was issued just before the close of business Thursday, shut down timber operations, which he said feed the supply chain for manufacturing paper products. It also left steelworkers without coal to use for making essential products.
“We need the governor to come to his senses,” Taylor said. “We need him to reconsider his executive order so we can refashion something that is workable.”
In his revised order, logging and timber operations can resume, as can coal mining.
Taylor said the revisions — which he compared to an “eeny-meenie-miney-moe list” — do not resolve what he believes is the potential to shutter businesses that are key to battling the pandemic.
“All manufacturing should be designated as essential,” he said.
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA provides its journalism at no cost to newsrooms across the state as a public good to keep our communities informed and thriving. If you value this service, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.