“Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic restrictions that required people to stay at home, placed size limits on gatherings and ordered ‘non-life-sustaining’ businesses to shut down” were ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV on Sept. 14, The Associated Press reported. The Wolf administration said Tuesday it will appeal that ruling to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania “House Republicans lost an override vote Wednesday on Wolf’s veto of a bill that would have given school boards the ability to make decisions on sports and extracurricular activities, including whether and how many spectators to allow,” the AP reported.
If all of these overlapping court cases, legal maneuvers, vetoes and attempts to override vetoes have left your head spinning, you’re not alone.
And you’re not alone in trying to figure out how it all applies to our everyday lives and making sound health decisions during a pandemic.
Trying to navigate this awful year of COVID-19 has been excruciating enough without the headache-inducing dueling messages from Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans over what we can and cannot do. And over what we should and should not be allowed to do.
So this is our latest plea for an end to the dysfunction in Harrisburg. The Wolf administration, leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the minority Democrats in the state House and Senate must work together on what’s best for Pennsylvanians.
Together is the key word.
Imagine what might have been accomplished if solidarity, collaboration and — yes — compromise had been the path taken in Harrisburg throughout this deadly, stressful health crisis.
And imagine what will not be accomplished if Harrisburg’s response to the winter months of the continuing COVID-19 threat and the treacherous economic landscape of 2021 are approached through this continuing lens of partisan rancor.
And yet here we are in late September, half a year into the crisis. Our state’s two political parties are still not on the same page — they’re barely in the same room — regarding the wisest approach for Pennsylvania.
Journalists are left to help the public interpret what all the conflicting restrictions, rulings and appeals actually mean. With regard to Stickman’s federal ruling that some of the governor’s pandemic restrictions are unconstitutional, we know this:
— The Wolf administration’s restriction on crowds — a maximum of 25 people inside and 250 people outside — has been struck down for now. That means more people can attend sporting events, for example, without being in violation of any state restriction. In response, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the whole point of the restrictions is to limit the spread of COVID-19, and she hopes Pennsylvanians keep that in mind as they make decisions in the wake of the federal ruling.
— The Wolf administration cannot order nonessential businesses to close, as it did early in the state’s response to COVID-19.
— The governor cannot order Pennsylvanians to stay at home.
The federal ruling does not affect restaurants, which are currently able to operate at 50% capacity, per the Wolf administration’s restrictions.
We should note that the ruling by Stickman, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, is already receiving intense criticism. Julian Mortenson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan, told Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that “the whole line of precedent that the opinion relies on was repudiated in the 1930s and has been taught as the classic error in arrogant, judicial overreach in constitutional law classes for decades.”
But we’d also note — again — that it didn’t have to come to this. More cooperation in Harrisburg might have avoided a situation in which federal courts are deciding how the state handles this crisis.
We’ve also seen too much time and energy wasted on the bitter cycle of GOP-led legislation to oppose or limit the governor’s actions, predictable vetoes by Wolf and attempts to override those vetoes.
For example, much time has been spent debating whether schools should have more local control over sports and extracurricular activities. Regarding the state House’s failed attempt Wednesday to override a Wolf veto on that issue, Democrats called it “folly” and accused Republicans of acting as if the coronavirus is simply going away. House Republicans, meanwhile, emphasized the need for more local control over decision-making and pointed fingers at House Democrats who switched their original votes and sided with the Democratic governor’s veto.
Finger-pointing, alas, has been the most actively played sport in Pennsylvania this year.
We’ve frequently criticized state government over the years. But it’s also fair to point out that lawmakers in Harrisburg have come together plenty of times to serve the interests of citizens. Some state budgets (though certainly not all) have been passed on time. There is consistent unity over the need to support our hardworking farmers. Last year’s package of voting reforms was laudable.
COVID-19 is one of the most serious crises Pennsylvania has faced in its history. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the most complicated or divisive, from a political standpoint. Some Harrisburg lawmakers even have been divided over masks — an inexpensive and effective tool that everyone should embrace.
Lawmakers from both parties must come together, end this crippling dysfunction and lead the state through the rest of this pandemic and the recovery that we hope will come sooner rather than later.