Appeals court allows Pennsylvania to restrict crowd size

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Pennsylvania can restore pandemic restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, putting on hold a judge’s ruling that threw out statewide limits on crowd size and other measures meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling means the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, may once again enforce size limits on gatherings while it appeals the lower court ruling, including on the number of spectators permitted at school sporting events.

“It’s back in place,” Wolf said of the gathering limits, though he hinted that changes might be forthcoming.

“We have to be careful about how we gather together, and I think that’s the important thing. At the same time, we’ve got to make sure that we’re being reasonable, realistic about how we do things,” said Wolf, speaking after the appeals court issued its ruling. “We’ll continue to look to make sure the guidelines we have in place are reasonable.”

U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV in Pittsburgh, an appointee of President Donald Trump, had ruled against the state’s size limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, saying they violate citizens’ constitutional rights 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.

Stickman’s Sept. 14 ruling prompted many Pennsylvania school districts to allow more fans in the stands at high school football games and other athletic contests. Wolf said he’s working with school districts “to do what we can to recognize the contexts that are different in every community.”

“Stay tuned,” the governor added. “We’re working on it as we speak. Today’s Thursday.”

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for school sports, said in a written statement that “we are hopeful that there may be some modifications to the restrictions.” But the PIAA added that as a result of the ruling, and without further action from Wolf, it’s telling member schools that the statewide spectator limits of 25 for indoor games and 250 for outdoor games are back in effect, including for playoffs.

The office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro asked the Philadelphia-based appeals court to intervene in the case after Stickman declined to stay his own order. Shapiro’s office said crowd-size limits and other statewide public health orders are “life-saving mitigation tools” against the virus, and warned that “eliminating the congregate limits during the pendency of this appeal will result in people’s deaths.”

More than 160,000 people in Pennsylvania have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 8,100 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, according to state health officials. After falling in August, infections have been trending back up in Pennsylvania as students head back to K-12 schools and colleges, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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.

Other state and federal courts have rejected various challenges to Wolf’s authority to impose public health orders in response to the pandemic.

But Stickman sided with plaintiffs that included hair salons, drive-in movie theaters, a farmer’s market vendor, a horse trainer and several Republican officeholders in ruling that Wolf’s policies were overreaching, arbitrary and violated citizens’ constitutional rights.

The three-judge appeals panel that put Stickman’s ruling on hold include two judges appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican, and one appointed by President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

“We are disappointed but undeterred,” said attorney Thomas W. King III, who represents the plaintiffs.

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