On Monday, federal Judge William S. Stickman IV struck down Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders to limit gathering sizes and close certain businesses designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. This is alarming. As medical professionals, we can tell you Gov. Wolf’s actions have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. This decision should be guided by public health, not partisan politics.
It wasn’t so long ago that cases of COVID-19 were surging in Pennsylvania. For several weeks in the spring, more than 100 people died each day as our hospitals filled to the brim. Doctors, nurses, and other essential members of the health professions worked long hours to keep patients safe, not knowing what the next day would bring. Patients suffered and died away from their families.
Research shows that COVID-19 restrictions — like those in Pennsylvania — prevented as many as 60 million infections in the U.S.; they helped us contain the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, like the experiences of Italy and New York. Indeed, Gov. Wolf’s swift, decisive action saved lives.
Right now, Pennsylvanians can be cautiously optimistic about our COVID-19 numbers — they are low and staying low in most parts of the state, allowing us to consider reopening schools and businesses safely. But that can change with careless actions and misguided court rulings.
Already, college students in Happy Valley and Delaware County (and their propensity for parties) are driving an increase in infections throughout the state. Yet ironically, these large gatherings are exactly the types of events targeted by Gov. Wolf’s order. This news comes after a new report from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health showing too many residents still aren’t wearing masks. Striking down lockdown orders could send the wrong message to our residents that the situation is safe when, in reality, significant risk remains.
With flu season looming, more students returning to school, and colder weather limiting safe outdoor socializing, smart stay-at-home orders and thoughtful plans for reopening businesses are as crucial now as they were last spring.
We need not remind Pennsylvanians of Arizona, Texas, or Florida — states that thought they had COVID-19 beat, only to relax restrictions and reemerge as hot spots. Shutdown orders, like the ones struck down Monday, were designed to prevent Pennsylvania from being next.
And although we are health-care workers and not lawyers, we believe these restrictions are absolutely constitutional.
Defending his ruling, Judge Stickman wrote “In an emergency, even a vigilant public may let down its guard over its constitutional liberties only to find that liberties, once relinquished, are hard to recoup.” We agree that individual liberties are important, but public safety is, too. And as medical providers who are putting our own lives at risk to care for Pennsylvanians with COVID-19, we have to balance both, a balancing act that is supported by the Constitution.
There’s no shortage of legal precedent defending a governor’s restriction of individual liberties during a pandemic — what is actually unprecedented is the politicization of this public health crisis. Remember: In the early days of the pandemic, President Donald Trump called COVID-19 a hoax by the Democrats as he downplayed the threat. Now, Judge Stickman, a Trump appointee, is striking down Gov. Wolf’s necessary and legal order.
We all want the pandemic to end. We want to revitalize our economy and get back to normal. That can only happen when public health — and not politics — guides our leaders.
Catherine Auriemma is a pulmonary and critical care fellow at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Hatem Abdallah is an MD candidate at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Austin S. Kilaru is an adjunct assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.