YORK – Gov. Tom Wolf angrily pledged to appeal a federal court ruling that declared much of his mitigation strategy to limit the spread of coronavirus unconstitutional and blasted Republicans at the state and national level who’ve been critical of his actions and cheered the ruling.

“Yesterday Harrisburg Republicans celebrated while thousands and thousands in our state continue to suffer,” Wolf said. “The president could do nothing more than stare at his phone and tweet.”

U.S. District Court Judge William Stickman ruled Monday that Wolf’s limits on crowd sizes of 25 people indoors and 250 people outdoors violate the First Amendment, and that the state’s move to close nonessential businessES was a violation of the 14th Amendment.

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said that the judge’s decision doesn’t impact many of the other orders put in place by the state to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The orders that the governor and I put in place on mask-wearing, mandatory telework, worker safety, building safety and hospital safety are all still in effect to protect Pennsylvanians, especially our frontline workers,” Levine said. “These existing – and still valid – orders were put in place in the absence of any federal leadership at a time when life-saving decisions needed to be made. Saving lives has been the cornerstone of all of our decisions," Levine said.

Stickman, a 2019 President Trump appointee, noted that the state’s initial actions were aimed at “flattening the curve” but that as the months have dragged on, the state’s emergency actions have continued without any explanation for when they might end.

Wolf, speaking at a press conference in York, said that the judge’s decision failed to give the state credit for having taken actions that saved lives and prevented Pennsylvania from seeing as much loss of life as neighboring states such as New Jersey and New York.

“What’s not up for debate is the early and decisive action that Secretary (Rachel) Levine, my administration and I took early in this pandemic saved lives,” Wolf said. “The federal government dithered” while Pennsylvania acted.

Wolf added that his administration has asked for the federal court to issue a stay to keep the crowd-size limits in place while Stickman’s decision is being appealed.

He also said that members of both parties need to acknowledge that the pandemic requires a thoughtful response.

“I’m going to keep holding their feet to the fire to stop playing politics with this disease,” he said.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to pass legislation that would have forced Wolf to relax some of his restrictions, including most recently a bill that would allow school districts to determine how many spectators can attend scholastic sporting events, regardless of the state’s crowd-size limits. Wolf has said he will veto that legislation. 

Republican legislative leaders said Stickman’s ruling vindicated their efforts in pushing back against Wolf’s mitigation strategy.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said that Wolf is being “disingenuous” in claiming that Republicans are playing political games.

“We’re taking this very, very seriously,” he said.

With the state facing a possible $5 billion shortfall in revenue, Republican lawmakers see reopening and restarting the economy as crucial.

“At the end of the day, we have to have the resources to help the people on the front lines,” he said. “It’s going to become very real for people when we don’t have the additional funding to provide to local hospitals, our EMS.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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