Pennsylvania Governor Wolf Retrenches on Sweeping Order Amid Complaints, Lawsuits

By , and | March 23, 2020

Under fire from business groups and Republican lawmakers and facing lawsuits over a broad shutdown order designed to slow the spreading of the coronavirus, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration defended its actions as critical to preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, but it also made a series of concessions.

Wolf defended the order – issued late Thursday to sharpen an earlier directive – by citing big, daily upticks in the number of coronavirus cases and declaring, “I cannot allow these surging numbers to overwhelm our people, our health care workers and our hospitals.”

Forcing tens of thousands of businesses to shutter their doors indefinitely will mean that fewer Pennsylvanians will become sick and fewer will die, he said.

Even before Thursday’s order, skyrocketing unemployment compensation filings in Pennsylvania this week smashed the state record, underscoring how many businesses had already closed or shed workers.

Wolf, a Democrat, said his “heart goes out to everybody in our commonwealth,” but he also said difficult decisions now will make it easier later.

“These are uncharted waters and, in this situation, we’re not going to do everything perfectly, but we’re going to do the best we can to prevent our hospital system from crashing,” Wolf said in a news conference.

On Thursday evening, Wolf directed all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close their physical locations, and said state government would enforce the edict.

It was among the toughest actions by a U.S. governor to combat the spread of COVID-19, coming after he has discouraged people from leaving home, if they can avoid it, and ordered schools shut through March, at least. But it drew loud complaints that it threatened critical supply chains and economic devastation, and a law firm and a gun store challenged it in court.

By Friday evening, Wolf’s administration issued new guidance that granted exceptions to the timber industry, coal mining, hotels, accountants, laundromats and law firms permitted by the courts. It also delayed enforcement from Saturday to Monday.

Wolf also said there’s a “robust waiver process” for businesses that believe they should be exempt from the shutdown order.

Still, it remained unclear Friday whether cities, counties or towns would go along with the order and use police or sanctions to close businesses that defied Wolf’s order.

Cases and Hospitals

The Pennsylvania Health Department reported a sharp rise in the number of confirmed cases on Friday, adding 83 in the past day for a total of more than 260 in 26 counties. There has been one death from COVID-19 in the state.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said cases will continue to surge. The Wolf administration is working to determine hospitals’ capability to handle it and exploring options to add bed space, staffing and supplies, she said.

One possibility is creating beds in hotels for patients with less serious ailments, while Wolf’s administration told hospitals to postpone elective procedures.

Still, western Pennsylvania’s biggest hospital system, UPMC, on Friday said that it would not put off elective surgeries. Dr. John Williams, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said he did not see “widespread community transmission yet.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Jobless Claims

Pennsylvania’s jobless claims filed this week set a state record, the state Department of Labor and Industry said.

A review of weekly data going back to 1987 shows a high point of 61,000 in early 2010, when the effects of the Great Recession were taking hold.

The department fielded more than 170,000 claims filed Monday through Wednesday, including 70,000 on Tuesday alone.

The agency is not releasing figures for Thursday and Friday, saying the federal government has embargoed this week’s figures until next Thursday.


A Harrisburg-area law firm is challenging the governor’s power to shutter law offices throughout Pennsylvania.

By ordering law firms to close, Wolf deprived citizens of their right to counsel, lawyer William Costopoulos argued in court papers. Costopoulos’ petition noted that the high court, in ordering the closure of state courts this week, created exceptions for emergency petitions involving custody, protection from abuse and other matters.

In an interview, Costopoulos said the executive branch doesn’t have a right to meddle in the judicial branch.

“The governor, though his intentions are well meaning in light of this pandemic, does not have the authority to usurp either the Supreme Court or the Constitution when it comes to the practice of law,” Costopoulos said.

In the second suit, a law firm, a gun shop and a would-be gun buyer asked the state Supreme Court to stop Wolf from shuttering businesses determined to be not “life-sustaining,” arguing he lacks that authority under state law.

The suit said the state’s gun shops “have been left with insufficient guidance as to their potential status as ‘life sustaining.”’

It also challenges Wolf’s order on Second Amendment and other constitutional grounds, saying the right to bear arms “is the epitome of life-sustaining.”


Wolf’s order Thursday night said more than 150 types of businesses had to close their physical locations. By Friday, that shrank to about 140.

Friday’s guidance also gave more detail about enforcement. Closures are enforceable through criminal penalties, including under health, safety and liquor laws, Wolf’s administration said. Discipline would be progressive, beginning with a warning, and focused on businesses where people congregate.

Open and Closed

Among those allowed to stay open are gas stations, grocery stores, beer distributors, drugstores, funeral homes and building materials stores. It also clarified that emergency building, highway, utility and bridge repairs are still permitted. Restaurants and bars can continue to offer carry-out, delivery and drive-thru food and drink service, but not dine-in service.

Businesses under shutdown orders range from vending machine operators to building contractors to many types of manufacturers, along with professional offices, such architects and engineers.

Retailers ordered to close include car dealers, bookstores, clothing stores, furniture stores, florists, office supply stores and lawn and garden stores. One category went from open to closed: civic and social organizations.

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Michael Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.

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