COVID-19: What Happens When Businesses Refuse to Obey Orders to Close? Two Pending Lawsuits May Soon Tell Us the Answer.

By: Matthew H. Fry, Esquire

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In late 2020, to limit the spread of COVID-19, Governor Wolf required the shut down of restaurant dining rooms during the winter holidays, a time of year that is big for small businesses.  Some restaurants ignored the rules and continued to operate.  At the time it was unknown how, if at all, the Pennsylvania Department of Health could legally enforce such orders for closures.  Now, two lawsuits have been filed by the Department of Health that may provide the answer to the government’s attempt to enforce its health emergency orders.

Although the shutdown order that prompted the lawsuit has ended, the lawsuits continue.  The Department of Health is seeking to take the earnings of each restaurant that they earned from their dining rooms while they were supposed to be closed.  The lawsuits further seek punitive damages for disobeying the orders.

According to the restaurants, there have been no COVID outbreaks traced to their businesses.  Because of this, they argue, the Department of Health has no reason to file suit against them.  The Department also sought closure of the restaurants, but because the order to close has expired, it is unknown whether this can happen now that the order is no longer valid. 

It may be several years before these lawsuits are resolved, so it remains to be seen whether these emergency orders can be legally enforced, and if they can be enforced, what type of damages can be collected.

Although the lawsuits may take longer to resolve than the pandemic, the danger to small businesses in future disputes with the Department of Health and its continued attempt to assert damages against the restaurants who defied the state’s order makes it a compelling case that could have significant ramifications on small businesses for years to come. 

The Law Firm of DiOrio & Sereni, LLP is a full-service law firm in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We strive to helppeople,businesses and institutions throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania solve legal problems – and even prevent legal problems before they occur.  To learn more about the full range of our specific practice areas, please visit or contact Matthew H. Fry, Esquire at 610-565-5700 or at [email protected].

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