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March 20, 2023

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Pennsylvania Federal Judge Strikes Down Key Provisions in Governor Wolf’s COVID-19 Orders

In a decision issued on September 14, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge William S. Stickman IV ruled that certain restrictions ordered by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to slow the spread of COVID-19 were unconstitutional. Judge Stickman’s decision comes after several other Pennsylvania courts upheld the restrictions as being within Wolf’s authority and courts in other states had upheld similar types of orders.


The decision impacts three of Wolf’s COVID-19 orders:

  • The order prohibiting indoor gatherings of more than 25 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people
  • The stay-at-home order
  • The order closing all “non-life-sustaining” businesses.

Wolf’s other COVID-19 orders, such as those requiring teleworking in certain situations and addressing mandatory use of masks and worker and building safety, are not affected by this decision and remain in effect.

In his Opinion, Judge Stickman wrote that while Wolf’s orders were a “well-intentioned effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus … good intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge.” Judge Stickman then struck down the above provisions of Wolf’s orders as unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.


Despite finding three of Wolf’s orders unconstitutional, the court’s decision is unlikely to affect the day-to-day operations of most Pennsylvania businesses. Wolf had already suspended enforcement of the stay-at-home order and the order closing non-life-sustaining businesses as part of his reopening plan, so the Court’s decision merely prevents the reinstatement of those orders.

Wolf had not suspended the gathering restrictions during his reopening plan, but instead amended the order to eliminate the 25-person indoor gathering limit. The outdoor gathering restriction remained in effect, so this restriction has now been lifted by the Court’s decision. It is important to note, however, that the gathering restriction is distinct from the restrictions on “normal business operations.” Those restrictions establish building occupancy limits (e.g., 25% for restaurants and 50% or 75% for retail and other businesses), and they have not been lifted by the decision. Instead, the decision merely lifts the restriction on outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people and prevents the 25-person indoor gathering limit from being reinstated.

Wolf responded to the ruling by stating that he intends to seek a stay of the decision and file an appeal. If Wolf is granted a stay, the orders will remain in effect pending a decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.


The court’s decision should not have an impact on most Pennsylvania employers, at least not now. Because the stay-at-home order and non-life-sustaining business closure order had already been suspended, most Pennsylvania businesses have been operating without these restrictions since their counties went into the “Green Phase” of reopening. Pennsylvania businesses should note, however, that the business occupancy restrictions have not been lifted, and business owners should continue to follow those restrictions. The decision would become more meaningful if Wolf ever sought to reinstate the stay-at-home and business closure orders.

Outdoor businesses, such as flea markets, drive-in movie theaters and others, should contact an attorney to determine whether this decision will allow them to operate free of the 250-person limitation.

Pennsylvania businesses also should keep an eye on Wolf’s appeal and request to stay the decision. If the stay is granted, Wolf’s orders will remain in effect until the Third Circuit rules on the appeal.

© 2023 Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 261

About this Author

David Woolf, Drinker Biddle Law Firm, Philadelphia, Labor and Employment Litigation Attorney

David J. Woolf assists clients in a range of labor and employment-related matters, including employment litigation, non-competition and other restrictive covenant-related issues and union/management relations. David also actively works with our Corporate and Securities group on labor and employment deal diligence, providing guidance on the labor and employment aspects of actual and potential transactions.

David defends employers in employment-related litigation, including individual and class claims of discrimination, harassment...

(215) 988-2614
Conor Hafertepe Employment Attorney Faegre Drinker Law Firm

Conor Hafertepe advises clients on employment-related disputes including discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims, and claims involving the enforcement of non-compete and restrictive covenant agreements.

Conor also advises employers on compliance issues and works with clients on employment policies, trainings and handbooks.

Prior to joining the firm, Conor served as a summer intern for the Philadelphia Law Department in 2017 and was a summer associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in 2018.

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