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Wolf, lawmakers in legal clash over emergency declaration

June 10, 2020 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The executive and legislative branches girded for a legal clash Wednesday over the emergency disaster declaration Gov. Tom Wolf issued at the beginning of the pandemic, with the majority Republicans voting to end it, the Democratic governor insisting he holds veto power and business owners left in limbo.

The Legislature late Tuesday declared an end to Wolf’s 3-month-old emergency declaration when members voted largely along party lines.

Republicans asserted their resolution paved the way for businesses shut down by Wolf’s order to reopen. Wolf said that it did no such thing, that the shuttering of “non-life-sustaining” businesses had been authorized by his health secretary under a different law.

Their dispute quickly landed in court, with Senate Republicans suing to compel Wolf to issue an executive order officially ending the coronavirus emergency.

“State law allows for the temporary suspension of civil liberties under dire circumstances,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said in a written statement. “We allowed the governor that time initially to flatten the curve. The need to suspend civil liberties in the interest of public health and safety has clearly passed.”

Wolf, who has beaten back previous legal challenges on his actions to combat the virus, welcomed the chance to argue that Republicans had overstepped their authority.

“I’m going to continue to focus on protecting Pennsylvanians and navigating our recovery, but I’ll tell you one thing: Ending the disaster declaration is not part of that plan,” Wolf said at a news conference Wednesday.

He ticked off a list of things he said would end if the Republicans get their way, including relaxed eligibility requirements for unemployment compensation, moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs, and emergency food distribution networks that serve needy children.

“The choice we have is whether we prioritize safety by reopening carefully with precautions in place, or whether we just create chaos and confusion through carelessness,” Wolf said.

Supporters of the resolution — which they asserted would do away with many, if not all, pandemic restrictions — said that state law authorizes the Legislature to end the emergency declaration unilaterally. House leadership also threatened legal action.

With about 2 million Pennsylvania residents filing unemployment claims since mid-March, Republicans have been pressing Wolf to reopen the state’s battered economy more quickly and more broadly.

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Wolf’s gradual easing of pandemic restrictions has allowed retailers and many other types of businesses to reopen on a limited basis, but others, including barber shops and gyms, remain shut down in the most populous parts of the state.

Republicans argued they had the right and responsibility to check Wolf’s power.

“It has become apparent that for the entire state, these decisions are being made by one man, the governor,” argued Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair. “How can we allow one man to continue to make poor decisions for millions?”

Wolf’s office said he will “disapprove” the resolution if it makes it to his desk, but argued that much of the shutdown would not be affected.

The Senate also voted 44-6 on Wednesday to add a provision to the state constitution that would limit governors’ disaster declarations to 30 days. After a month, both chambers of the General Assembly would have to vote to extend them.

That amendment was bundled with a separate section that would prohibit “denial or abridgment of equality of rights” based on race or ethnicity.

As a constitutional amendment, it requires passage by the House before December, approval by both chambers in the next session, and then passage of a statewide voter referendum.

In other coronavirus-related developments Wednesday:

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SPORTS MAY RESUME

Sporting competitions at all levels in Pennsylvania will be permitted to resume, with restrictions, under guidance issued Wednesday by the Wolf administration.

School sports, which were shut down when Wolf closed K-12 schools in March to help slow the spread of the virus, may resume once school districts develop an athletic health and safety plan, the governor’s office said. College, recreational and youth sports may also restart.

Gatherings of players, coaches, officials and spectators will be limited to 25 for counties in the “yellow” phase of Wolf’s reopening plan, and 250, or 50% capacity, for those in the less restrictive “green” phase, according to the guidance.

Pro sports in “yellow’ counties are permitted to play without fans in the stands. Pro competitions taking place in “green” counties are permitted to be held in front no more than 250 people.

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OUTDOOR RECREATION

The Wolf administration also issued new guidance on outdoor recreation, saying businesses that offer mountain biking, outdoor mini golf, go carts, rock climbing, paintball, horse riding, tennis, archery or shooting, and similar activities can resume operation with restrictions.

Those businesses must keep their indoor spaces off-limits to the public except for restrooms, ticketing and entry. They must also prevent customers from congregating at entry gates, kiosks and concession stands, officials said.

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CASES

The state Department of Health on Wednesday reported 48 additional coronavirus deaths, raising the statewide total to 6,062.

Health officials reported 410 new infections, bringing the statewide total to nearly 77,000.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. There is no data on how many people have fully recovered.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.