Court Overturns School Mask Mandate, Wolf Administration Files Appeal
By: KDKA-TV News Staff
HARRISBURG, Pa. (KDKA/AP) - A state court struck down Pennsylvania's school mask mandate on Wednesday, saying the acting health secretary lacked the authority to issue it. The Wolf administration put the decision on hold by filing an immediate appeal.
Commonwealth Court sided 4-1 ruled in favor of parents, including state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, suing the Wolf administration.
Within hours of the decision, it was put on hold when Health Department lawyers filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
The judges said Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam didn't have the authority to issue a new regulation requiring masks, declaring the mask order void and unenforceable. The judges also said Beam's mandate did not comply with the state's laws about reviewing and approving regulations and was adopted without an existing disaster emergency declared by the governor.
The state's disease control law does not give health secretaries "the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth, provided they are related in some way to the control of disease or can otherwise be characterized as disease control measures," wrote Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon, a Republican, for the majority.
The mask mandate was put in place in early September and required everyone to wear masks at K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status. The Wolf administration cited a surge in infections and hospitalizations from the more contagious delta variant.
That order resulted in backlash from some parents and two lawsuits.
The judges' decision comes just days after Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state intends to let local school officials make decisions on mask-wearing on Jan. 17.
Republican state lawmakers pushed through a pair of constitutional amendments that voters approved in May, limiting the length of gubernatorial disaster declarations.
State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, who sued along with Corman, parents and school entities, said the issue for him was not the masks themselves. He said the Beam order was "an end-around the constitutional amendment passed by the people, limiting the executive branch's authority during a state of emergency."
Voters agreed to end a governor's emergency disaster declaration after 21 days and gave lawmakers the sole authority to extend it or end it at any time with a simple majority vote.
Before they were passed, the state constitution required a two-thirds majority vote by lawmakers to end a governor's disaster declaration and, legally, the governor could issue an emergency declaration for up to 90 days and extend it without limit.
"It wasn't the masks at all," Topper said Wednesday. "It was about the idea of imposing a mandate like this on a healthy population of children outside any of the regulatory process that would normally have to go through or any of the legislative process you would normally have to go through."
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