Gov. Wolf defends coronavirus shutdown

Michael Rubinkam and Marc Levy
Associated Press

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s coronavirus death toll rose by one on Saturday as lawyers for Gov. Tom Wolf asked a court to dismiss lawsuits challenging his authority to shutter “non-life-sustaining” businesses, declaring that unprecedented action is needed to combat a global pandemic they called “perhaps the biggest catastrophe of our lifetimes.”

The Allegheny County Health Department confirmed the death Saturday but did not release details, other than to say the victim was an adult who had been hospitalized. Nearly 270 coronavirus cases and two deaths have been reported in Pennsylvania.

In a legal filing late Friday, the state attorney general’s office said Wolf is empowered by the state’s Emergency Management Services Code to shutter businesses and restrict people’s movements in a disaster.

“COVID-19 presents an extraordinary challenge that requires extraordinary measures to combat. The governor was empowered by law to combat precisely this challenge,” the filing said.

The state Supreme Court did not immediately rule on lawsuits challenging aspects of Wolf’s authority to shut down gun shops and law firms.

Wolf has justified his edict that tens of thousands of businesses shutter their doors indefinitely by citing big, daily upticks in the number of coronavirus cases that health officials say threaten to overwhelm hospitals and spike the death toll.

Under pressure from Republicans and business groups, Wolf agreed to delay enforcement of the shutdown order until Monday. His administration also agreed to exempt additional businesses from the shutdown, including the timber industry, coal mines, hotels, accountants and laundromats.

A Harrisburg-area law firm challenged the governor’s power to shutter law offices, declaring Wolf had no right to meddle in the judicial branch. In a second suit, also filed Friday, a gun shop said Wolf’s edict violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms and other constitutional rights.

Wolf’s lawyers said that nothing in his order prevents an attorney from practicing law or a citizen from owning a gun.

“Petitioners’ argument that the global COVID-19 pandemic is somehow not a disaster demonstrates a dangerous level of myopathy about the effect this pandemic could have on the citizens of the commonwealth and our health care system if the spread of this disease is not arrested,” the attorney general’s office wrote.

Wolf’s administration has steadfastly refused to confirm to The Associated Press whether gun shops are covered by his shutdown order. Its legal filing said the governor’s office used industry codes generated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to construct its list of businesses covered by the shutdown order.

“Any business would already know which sector it occupies and its corresponding NAICS code,” the filing said.

On Saturday, Joshua Prince, a lawyer challenging the governor’s edict, called the legal filing “merely another smoke and mirrors response by the commonwealth, as it is acutely aware that there is no NAICS code relative to the sale, manufacture or transfer of firearms and ammunition.”

He said the coding issue arises frequently for federal firearms licensees when they attempt to procure financing, “as there is no applicable code.”

Wolf’s legal team also said that voluntary requests for Pennsylvanians to stay away from one another and for businesses to close their doors and have employees work from home proved ineffective at slowing the spread of the disease, requiring more drastic action.

“Pennsylvanians refused to voluntarily engage in ‘social distancing’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving Governor Wolf with no option other than to close nonessential businesses to ‘lessen the curve’ of the disease,” the filing said.

— Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. 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.