Tuesday, June 15

Frustration grows as covid restrictions remain, political rallies go on

About an hour ago

As thousands gathered Thursday night in Latrobe at a rally for President Trump, others across Western Pennsylvania stayed home — working remotely and unable to go to schools, restaurants or sporting events.

They were, as they have over the past six months, following Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidance to stop the spread of covid-19.

But the contrasting scenarios have prompted some local business owners and high school sports fans to question the appearance of a double standard by Wolf’s administration. They point to a lack of uniform implementation of covid-19 policies that allow 5,000 people to crowd a
private airport hangar while parents can’t watch their kids at soccer practice. And they underscore an ongoing debate over whether public health restrictions infringe on First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli said it stings to see events such as massive political rallies go on while others are subject to restrictions.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to all the small businesses in Westmoreland County that are
struggling to survive and to all the parents who are worried about sending their children back to school,” said Cerilli, a Democrat and the minority member of the board of commissioners. “I saw a school bus the other day, and every child on it was wearing a mask.

“I didn’t see anything like that from the pictures I saw of that rally. I hope we don’t see a spike in (corona­virus) cases in the next couple of weeks.”

The Wolf administration said it plans to reach out to the Trump campaign to remind them of Pennsylvania’s mitigation measures, which limit outdoor public gatherings to 250 people.

“The organizers neither sought nor received permission to violate the gathering restrictions,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for Wolf.

Videos and photos of the rally showed an estimated 5,000 supporters crowded at a private hangar and runway at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. Many of those attending quickly shed masks that were required for admission.

The Trump campaign, which halted the president’s favored arena rallies last month as concerns about the coronavirus spiked, did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, the Trump administration has defended its decision to hold in-person rallies, saying the right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, however, was quick to condemn the airport rally where Trump spoke for nearly two hours as reckless.

“Donald Trump clearly cares more about getting a photo-op than he does about protecting the safety of Western Pennsylvanians,” said Ike Hajinazarian, the Biden campaign’s regional press secretary for Western Pennsylvania.

Experts say warnings help …

Although Wolf has come under criticism in some sectors for the state’s restrictions on businesses and public gatherings and a toothless approach to enforcement, independent experts say continuing public health threats merit consideration.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said political rallies with thousands of participants can pose similar risks to the likes of protests, religious gatherings, choir practices and funerals, all of which have been limited.

“Any type of mass gathering is going to increase the potential for the spread of the virus, and the more people that are at a gathering, the more likely that the virus is going to be spread,” Adalja said. “And people chanting or cheering or singing — those are known to increase spread.”

When coronavirus cases spiked in Allegheny County this summer, the county’s health department adopted even stricter regulations than the state. Just last week, the county, which had limited outdoor gatherings to 50 people, said a decrease in virus counts justified increasing the cap to 100 people.

Responding to intense public criticism, Wolf on Wednesday lifted the complete ban on spectators at high school sports. His new order allows up to 250 people to attend those events. But he did not lift overall restrictions on public gatherings. Businesses from small corner bars to massive retail outlets are still subject to restrictions ranging from masking to limits on patrons, even if they are rarely enforced.

Wolf, who says his orders are based on data, has threatened sanctions against state-licensed entities such as bars and beauty shops found to violate his public health orders. He even withheld coronavirus funding for Lebanon County when it flouted his orders.

… but few citations issued

But public records suggest there have been very few sanctions or citations for violations. State police records list hundreds of warnings the agency has issued to businesses violating the governor’s orders. But fewer than a dozen actual citations were issued as of the end of July.

In one of its earliest enforcement actions, the state police cited a Westmoreland County couple with violating the Disease Control and Prevention Act of 1955 when they got into a fight at a house party in Bell Township in April. Stay-at-home orders were in effect at the time.

Arnold Palmer Regional Airport Director Gabe Monzo said airport officials had no authority over the Trump rally because it was held on private property leased by LJ Aviation. The company is an aviation servicing firm owned by Edward Kilkeary, a Latrobe businessman who has contributed thousands of dollars to Trump and other Republican candidates. The event was hosted at the LJ Aviation hangar.

Monzo said the airport’s only involvement in the rally was in maintaining scheduled arrivals and takeoffs and closing the gates once parking reached capacity about 5:30 p.m.

State police are responsible for enforcing Wolf’s orders in Unity Township, where the airport is located. They helped direct traffic Thursday night but did not report issuing any citations for public health violations.

Define ‘compelling interest’

Confusion and frustration about the restrictions on businesses and public gatherings and how they are enforced may stem from the broad powers accorded governors to act when there is a “compelling interest” in protecting public health.

Bruce Ledewitz, a state constitutional law scholar and professor at the Duquesne University School of Law, said the governor’s authority to act in a public health emergency is broad. It can extend to regulating events featuring speech that is protected under the First Amendment, such as political rallies. But those same powers also empower the governor to provide exemptions for such activities, he said.

Asked about events such as rallies and protests, Ledewitz said the state’s lack of action suggests that is, indeed, the case.

“Clearly the governor and the state police have decided in terms of First Amendment activity, ‘We are not going to enforce state rules,’ ” Ledewitz said. “But they have to be consistent about all activities protected under the First Amendment.

”If you’re running a church service now, you go to your minister and say, ‘I want the same rules that political rallies have.’ You can’t enforce one set of rules for church services and one for political rallies. They’re all protected First Amendment activities.”

Adalja, the infectious disease specialist, said it’s hard to say whether Thursday’s rally will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

Officials in Tulsa, Okla., reported a spike in cases following the Trump rally there on June 20 that attracted several thousand supporters to an indoor arena.

“I’m sure there will be some cases, just hopefully they’ll be limited,” Adalja said.

He said individuals should weigh the risk of attending any gathering and take extra precautions if they are older or have underlying health conditions.

“We have seen transmission with choirs, and we’ve seen transmission at funerals as well,” he said. “There is no activity that doesn’t carry the virus, so you really have to think about every action and your risk tolerance and make a decision.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, derdley@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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