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Alito testifying before Congress in 2019. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito last night criticized some of the restrictions state and local leaders have imposed during the pandemic, saying they may violate the First Amendment and casting them as part of a long, dark turn toward lawmaking through "executive fiat."

What he's saying: "Think of all the live events that would otherwise be protected by the freedom of speech ... think of worship services ... think about access to the courts or access to a speedy trial," Alito said in a speech to the conservative Federalist Society.

Why it matters: The Supreme Court has already been asked to hear challenges to some COVID-19 measures, and may well be asked to hear more.

  • Alito said he was not weighing in on the public health merits of these policies or passing judgment on specific rules.
  • His speech, however, was about pervasive threats to constitutional liberties, and he brought up coronavirus restrictions repeatedly in that context.
  • "The COVID crisis has served as a sort of constitutional stress test, and in doing so it has highlighted disturbing trends that were already present before the virus struck," Alito said.

Among those disturbing trends, he said, is the exercise of broad authority "by executive officials who are thought to implement policies based on expertise — and in the purest form, scientific expertise."

  • Alito singled out rules in Nevada that allowed casinos to open at 50% of their normal capacity, while limiting houses of worship to 50 total people, no matter how big their building is or what precautions they have in place.
  • Those restrictions, and similar regulations in California, were appealed to the Supreme Court, which deferred to local authorities. But those policies "blatantly discriminated" against religious exercise, Alito said, and "should not have been a very tough call."

Go deeper

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

NYC set to restart indoor dining in February, weddings in March

Outdoor dining in New York City in January. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that if the current coronavirus positivity in New York City holds, indoor dining will reopen at 25% capacity on Feb. 14, one of the busiest dining days of the year.

Why it matters: The forced closure of indoor dining in December caused major backlash, as New York's struggling restaurant industry had already been hit hard by pandemic restrictions. Restaurants will still be required to close at 1o p.m.

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Germany to impose travel restrictions to curb spread of coronavirus variants

Border police officers check passports and COVID-19 tests at Frankfurt Airport. Photo: Thomas Lohnes via Getty Images

Germany announced Friday that it was imposing new travel restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants.

Details: All non-German residents traveling from countries deemed "areas of variant concern," including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Portugal, Ireland, Brazil, Lesotho and Eswatini, will be banned from entering the country, even if they test negative for the coronavirus.