US judge calls Pennsylvania virus restrictions ‘unconstitutional’

A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Monday that orders by the state’s Democratic governor to shut down businesses and limit gatherings to tackle Covid-19 were “unconstitutional.”

The lockdown measures, announced at the start of the coronavirus in March, were challenged in court by several Republican lawmakers and small business owners, including the proprietor of a hair salon and of a racehorse stable, who said the restrictions put their enterprises at risk.

Judge William Stickman ruled in their favor, and said that even if the governor acted with “good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” he did not have the right to infringe on citizens’ fundamental freedoms.

“There is no question that this country has faced, and will face, emergencies of every sort,” the judge wrote. “But the solution to a national crisis can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment.”

He slammed what he called “arbitrary” distinctions over which businesses were deemed essential or non-essential and said no objective definition had been provided.

“The Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions of the defendants crossed those lines. It is the duty of the Court to declare those actions unconstitutional,” said the judge, appointed by President Donald Trump in 2019.

Governor Tom Wolf has since lifted a large number of the restrictions after the virus, which killed 7,800 people in the state, appeared to be coming under control.

But some restrictions remain, including the limitation on bars and restaurants having more than 25 clients indoors or 250 outside.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, US courts have been swamped with lawsuits challenging restrictions, with mixed results: in May a judge overruled an extension of the lockdown orders in Wisconsin while a Michigan court ruled in its favor.

The virus has killed 194,000 people in the country.

Wolf’s office was not immediately available to comment on the ruling.

Pennsylvania, which narrowly backed Trump in the 2016 election, is seen by Democrats as one of the states they need to regain in November’s elections.

In spring, there were numerous protests against lockdown orders. (AFP)