Top court upholds governor’s sweeping virus emergency orders

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BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker did not overstep his authority when he issued sweeping orders to close businesses and limit gatherings to control the spread of the coronavirus, the highest court in Massachusetts said in a ruling released Thursday.

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected a challenge brought on behalf of a group including salon owners, pastors and the headmaster of a private school, who accused the Republican governor of exercising “legislative police power” by declaring a state of emergency under the state’s Civil Defense Act.

The court said the pandemic clearly merits action by the governor under the Cold War-era law. It also rejected the lawsuit’s argument that the governor’s actions infringe on people’s constitutional rights to due process and free assembly.

“Given that COVID-19 is a pandemic that has killed over a million people worldwide, it spreads from person to person, effective vaccines have not yet been distributed, there is no known cure, and a rise in cases threatens to overrun the Commonwealth’s hospital system, it is a natural cause for which action is needed to ‘protect the public peace, health, security and safety, and to preserve the lives and property of the people of the commonwealth,’” the court wrote, quoting the state law.

The governor declared a state of emergency March 10, giving him greater power to take actions like shutting down events with large gatherings of people or gaining access to buildings or stockpiling protective gear. He has issued a slew of emergency orders prohibiting gatherings of a certain size, closing certain businesses and mandating masks aimed at slowing the spread of the disease in the hard-hit state.

Facing mounting pressure in recent weeks from public health experts and municipal leaders to do more to control the dramatic increase in coronavirus cases that is stressing the health care system, Baker announced this week that Massachusetts would tighten some restrictions.

Beginning Sunday, indoor theaters and performance venues will again have to close, and stores, houses of worship, gyms, libraries, museums and other indoor spaces will have to reduce their capacity from 50% to 40%.

Yet restaurants, casinos and many other indoor venues will still be allowed to remain open, even as the state again opens field hospitals to help cope with rising numbers of COVID-19 patients.

The lawsuit filed in June by the Washington-based group New Civil Liberties Alliance argued that Baker had no authority to issue public health-related orders under the Civil Defense Act, which it said was designed to protect the state from foreign invasions, insurrections, and catastrophic events like hurricanes and fires.

The group argued the coronavirus falls under another state law, which it said puts local health boards instead of the governor primarily in charge of public health emergencies.

“Fear of a deadly virus is not a reason to abandon constitutional governance,” Michael DeGrandis, senior litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, said in June.

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