In popular social media post, Pa. sheriff says he won’t enforce business closures if asked

Zack Hoopes
The Sentinel

CUMBERLAND COUNTY — Cumberland County Sheriff Ronny Anderson has gained some social media attention for a Facebook post stating that his department would not be forcing businesses to close or acting on any “order that violates our constitutional rights” in reference to Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 restrictions.

The message, posted to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department page on Friday afternoon, gained a great deal of praise from those critical of Gov. Tom Wolf’s ongoing shutdown order, which is intended to stem the spread of the pandemic.

The post had more than 1,000 comments on it and more than 5,000 shares as of 8:30 p.m. Friday.

In an interview with The Sentinel, Anderson cautioned that he was not currently being asked to do anything that he thought was legally unsound, but wanted to reassure residents that county sheriff’s deputies would not step over the line if it came to it.

“I’m just making the statement that if I get called to do it, I will not be doing it,” Anderson said.

Wolf’s order to close certain non-essential businesses became enforceable March 23. However, the governor has stressed voluntary compliance, and the Pennsylvania State Police — which have served as the primary enforcement arm — have only issued a single citation for non-compliance statewide, according to the agency. Troopers have issued 312 warnings, according to PSP figures.

During a news briefing Friday, Wolf continued to stress that his closure order was designed to be self-enforcing and told Pennsylvanians to reject the framing that businesses were fighting against him moreso than the virus.

“The regulation is not the enemy. The virus is the enemy,” Wolf said. “The real enforcement here is, ‘do we want to jeopardize those we care about?'”

The county sheriff’s office has not been asked to assist in this enforcement, but Anderson said he would not take punitive measures if asked.

“We’re not going to be pushed into going after our citizens and small business people,” Anderson said. “I’m just saying, in my position as the Cumberland County Sheriff, I have no anticipation of going out and forcing it.”

Several challenges have been fielded in state and federal courts regarding the legality of Wolf’s order under pursuant to the state and federal constitutions; none have so far been successful.

On Friday, Anderson said that a hypothetical future action by Wolf would need to be blatantly unconstitutional for the sheriff to unilaterally decide to not enforce it, but wanted to assure residents that he would not follow such an edict, were it to arise.

“Doing the right thing is doing the right thing,” Anderson said. “That’s a decision I would have to make if it came to that point.”

Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert issued a memo to law enforcement in the county shortly after Wolf’s closure order came down in March, advising them to avoid any subjectivity on their part by giving non-compliant businesses 48 hours to close.

If they do not, officers should submit an affidavit to Ebert and a court hearing will be scheduled, so that a judge can make the determination on Wolf’s “life-sustaining businesses” rule.

Anderson said he made the Facebook statement after being “inundated” with queries from Facebook users who had seen other law enforcement officials express similar concerns or sentiments.

However, social media users expressing fear that pandemic restrictions will become more draconian appear to be a vocal minority; multiple national polls indicate that most Americans are more fearful of authorities pulling back restrictions too quickly and causing another spike in the outbreak.

Pew Research Center poll of 4,917 American adults found 66 percent were more fearful of restrictions being lifted too fast rather than too slowly; 73 percent of those polled said they believed the worst of the pandemic was yet to come.

The attitudes exhibit a notable political divide, according to Pew and other studies. Of those who identify as liberal Democrats, 85 percent were more concerned about restrictions being lifted too rapidly, compared to only 46 percent of conservative Republicans.

That gap has been visible in Pennsylvania, with GOP lawmakers having filed dozens of bills to compel Wolf to pull back on his shutdown order. Many Republican state legislators also appeared at an April 20 rally in Harrisburg to demand a rapid re-opening of Pennsylvania, an event which featured armed demonstrators.

In Lebanon County — where residents are still contracting the virus at a rate more than three times above the state’s threshold to be considered for shutdown relief — GOP state lawmakers notified Wolf on Friday of the county’s intention to lift pandemic restrictions on its own beginning next week.

In Dauphin County, home of the state Capitol, the Republican chairman of the Board of Commissioners called Wolf a “dictator” in an online message savaging the governor’s handling of the pandemic. The county made plans to reopen on its own next week — without the governor’s blessing.

Most of Pennsylvania, including the heavily populated Philadelphia area and hard-hit eastern Pennsylvania, remains under Wolf’s strictest shutdown orders, with no timeline to emerge. There, Wolf’s stay-at-home orders extend until June 4.

While promising to reopen more counties soon, Wolf warned that his reopening plan is not “a one-way route” and that restrictions can be reimposed if his administration feels the virus is resurgent.McClatchy-Tribune News Service