The Adios Pace for the Orchids, billed by The Meadows Standardbred Owners Association as the biggest event of the year at the harness racing track, will limit the number of spectators in the grandstand Aug. 1 to just 250, under current state-imposed rules about outdoor venues.
News of the sporting event was part of approximately six hours of wide-ranging testimony – some in person, some via Zoom digital platform – from government officials and business owners on Friday in U.S. District Court, Pittsburgh.
Washington County Commission Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan brought up the situation at the racetrack as part of an assertion that Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine have violated the constitutional rights of Pennsylvanians in their shutdown orders due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In addition to Washington, Greene, Fayette and Butler counties are seeking a permanent injunction barring Wolf and Levine from enforcing the order “in the manner and fashion engaged by Defendants,” and ending “the arbitrary and capricious ‘waiver’ system,” which the administration made available for businesses that wanted to remain open.
“It’s pretty well packed,” said Steven Schoeffel, who trains horses and races them at The Meadows, pegging the crowd size at about 2,000 in his testimony about what would constitute a normal Adios draw.
Harness racing’s pari-mutuel betting and gaming at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino have taken a hit due to the governor’s shutdown orders. The casino in Washington County, closed for 84 days, experienced a 31.6% drop in slot machine revenue while Lady Luck at Nemacolin Woodlands, shuttered for 87 days, was off nearly 11%, according to the most recent news release from the state Gaming Control Board.
This translates to a smaller local share for county, municipal and non-governmental projects, Irey Vaughan testified.
But Chief Deputy Attorney General Karen Romano peppered Irey-Vaughan and her fellow Republican chairmen from Greene, Fayette and Butler counties with a similar series of questions about their medical training, expertise in public health and knowledge of medical infrastructure and demographics.
None of the commissioners is a physician, but they were able to answer questions during cross-examination about local medical facilities in their respective counties and the population.
Greene County Commission Chairman Mike Belding said he objected to his 35,000-resident county, which has experienced no deaths from COVID-19, having the same restrictions as much larger Allegheny. As of Thursday, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Greene stood at 79, up from 35 when the suit was filed in early May.
Along with the terms “social distancing” and “COVID-19,” “flattening the curve” was the stated objective in March and throughout the spring. A gradual lifting of restrictions in May and June has resulted in a resurgence, and as of Thursday, the highly contagious disease has infected 99,478 Pennsylvanians and proved lethal to 6,992.
Fayette County Commission Chairman David Lohr noted that he knew of no act of the Legislature that created a Southwestern Pennsylvania region within which area counties are lumped.
The number of coronavirus cases range from Allegheny County’s increase announced Friday at 240, bringing its total to 5,990 cases with 206 deaths, to drastically lower counts in Greene and Somerset counties.
Lead attorney Thomas King III of Butler County noted during questioning that there is no category for those who have recovered from the disease, and the total rises with no recoveries ever being subtracted.
Health experts have said the long-term effects of the COVID-19 virus are as yet unknown because it is new among humans. The heart, brain, kidneys and liver are among the organs of survivors being monitored while vaccines and their side effects are still being researched. There is no known cure for the novel coronavirus, but U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, a COVID-19 survivor and plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, had an appointment Friday to donate his plasma so antibodies could be used to treat victims.
Among local litigants, Cathy Hoskins of Classy Cuts hair salon, Waynesburg, said she considered applying for a waiver to be an exercise in futility.
Elizabeth Walker, an owner of the Skyview Drive-In theater, Carmichaels, testified she talked with state Rep. Pam Snyder about her waiver denial, but was told she had to abide by the determination. Church officials, she said, had asked to use the facility, which has 500 parking spaces.
The salon and drive-in with concession are now open, but Walker said neighbors asked her to operate the food stand to give them an additional option during a period when so many restaurants had been ordered to close.
The suit points to what the plaintiffs view as inequities in the waiver system granted by the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Skyview Drive-In, which also serves ice cream and pizza, was not allowed to operate, unlike neighboring businesses that sell the same foods.
Several politicians from Butler and Mercer counties complained that stay-at-home orders cramped their campaign style or hampered them in either a special election or the June 2 primary, or both.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican, testified he wants to see Wolf, a Democrat, impeached because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but Judge William S. Stickman IV, presiding over the declaratory judgment case, asked witnesses to limit their testimony to the current situation and issues raised in the lawsuit.
Paul Crawford of Marigold Farm in Washington County did not submit an affidavit and did not testify Friday.
Stickman will continue to hear testimony in the case Wednesday.