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COVID-19 Crackdown And Compromise: The Commonwealth Of Pennsylvania Takes Legal Action To Enforce Coronavirus / COVID-19 Green Phase Restrictions But Matter Ends In Settlement After Court Argument

By: Robert D. Shope

On June 17, 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Health filed a complaint in equity seeking an injunction against Carlisle Productions, Inc. d/b/a Carlisle Events (“Carlisle”). The lawsuit aimed to prevent Carlisle from hosting “Spring Carlisle”, a massive car show, without Carlisle agreeing to limit its attendees to 250 people in accordance with Pennsylvania’s green phase guidelines. According to local media outlets, Spring Carlisle has been occurring annually since 1974, and takes place on Carlisle Fairgrounds’ roughly 100 acres. The event usually draws upwards of 100,000 people from all around the world. Event organizers have reportedly taken precautions in response to COVID-19 including implementation of social distancing guidelines, installation of Plexiglas at vendor stations, installation of hand sanitizer stations, and also changing the normally in-person auction portion of the event to an online auction. On June 9, 2020, Carlisle requested that the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development grant a waiver that would have permitted Spring Carlisle to exceed the 250 person limit. The Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development responded to Carlisle by denying the waiver and reminding them to comply with all green phase guidance. On June 16, 2020, a letter was sent to Carlisle by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, reminding it of its obligation to comply with all orders, which includes the 250 person limit. It is alleged that this letter requested Carlisle to respond by 7:00 p.m. that same day in order to confirm that all event organizers would adhere to all orders. Allegedly, Carlisle did not respond.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health complaint followed the next day, citing to the March 19, April 1, May 7, and May 17, 2020 orders promulgated by Governor Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine in response to COVID-19. Specifically, the May 17 Order prohibits “any gathering for a planned or spontaneous event of greater than 250 individuals” including but not limited to concerts, fairs, festivals, conferences, sporting events, movie showings, or theater performances in counties which have entered the green phase. The complaint sought equitable relief and further alleged that the Pennsylvania Department of Health “has no adequate remedy at law to redress its harm as a result of [Carlisle’s] anticipated violation of the May 27 Order.” As such, the Pennsylvania Department of Health alleged that its only remedy was to seek injunctive relief requiring Carlisle to comply with the 250 person limit while it hosted Spring Carlisle. The complaint alleged that this injunctive relief was necessary to prevent substantial injury and immediate and irreparable harm to the public health interests of the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Carlisle put out the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

This morning (June 17, 2020), Carlisle Events received notice of a lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health in the Commonwealth Court. The filing seeks to apply and enforce the Department’s 250-person COVID-19 limit to outdoor events, such as our Spring Carlisle event, which opened this morning. We have retained counsel and intend to vigorously defend this action.

Similar to other large outdoor entertainment venues and amusement parks that have or are scheduled to open under the Green Phase in southcentral Pennsylvania, our approximately 100-acre event facility provides ample space for vendors and patrons to interact in a responsible manner, consistent with the CDC’s social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines.

Carlisle Events has worked tirelessly to put on this event in a socially responsible manner and will continue to do so. We believe the Department of Health’s Order is invalid. Even if the Order is valid, the Department has erred in its application to outside events such as ours, or has acted arbitrarily in seeking to enforce the order against us, while permitting other entertainment venues to open.

We very much appreciate the business and support of our patrons and vendors during this time, and we hope that we will be able to continue to provide quality entertainment events that have become such an important part of our local and regional economy for the next forty-five years and more.

A hearing took place at 11:00 a.m. on June 18 in front of Commonwealth Court Judge Anne E. Covey to address the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s request for an injunction. According to local media outlets, the Pennsylvania Health Department maintained its position that Spring Carlisle must be limited to no more than 250 attendees at a time in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions. Carlisle officials responded that they have already implemented measures to place Spring Carlisle in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions including limiting attendance to 50% capacity of the roughly 100 acre fairgrounds while also taking other safety measures. Judge Covey reportedly “grilled” the attorney for the Pennsylvania Health Department as to why the Pennsylvania Health Department considered crowds at the car show to be a health hazard when Governor Wolf personally marched shoulder to shoulder with protesters in Harrisburg just two weeks before. No ruling was ultimately made. The following day, however, a “settlement in principal” was reached between Carlisle and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Although the details of the settlement have not been disclosed, Spring Carlisle, which began on June 17 despite the lawsuit, continued through its originally planned end date, June 20. It appears that the event was staged as planned with the limitations described above by Carlisle being self-imposed by the organizers.

This lawsuit was an example of the means the Commonwealth is initially willing to use in order to ensure compliance with its COVID-19 related orders. It is also an example of how these matters may be able to be settled with adherence to proper and rigorous Covid-19 precautions. The disposition of this lawsuit, as well as Judge Covey’s remarks during the hearing, are extremely significant for many businesses and organizations that will likely be finding themselves in the same position in which Carlisle found itself. This is especially true in light of the summer months ahead, during which many businesses and organizations make a majority of their profits for the year.

 

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