By Zachary Stieber
A court in Pennsylvania on Wednesday struck down an order that required masks in schools.
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam’s order, which also mandated masks in child care facilities, violated state laws outlining how regulations are promulgated, the Commonwealth Court said in a 4–1 ruling.
Beam issued the order on Aug. 31 but Gov. Tom Wolf had not declared an emergency, which was required, said Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon, a Republican writing for the majority.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health “does not have carte blanche authority to impose whatever disease control measures the Department of Health sees fit to implement without regard for the procedures for promulgating rules and regulations, expedited or otherwise,” she added.
Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican who challenged the mandate with a group of parents, cheered the decision.
“Today’s ruling validates what we have said all along—mask decisions should be made by parents and school boards, NOT unelected bureaucrats. A blanket mandate does not address the unique needs and circumstances of individual communities, and it takes power away from the people who are in the best position to protect our kids,” Corman said in a joint statement with state Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward.
A spokesperson for Wolf, a Democrat, told news outlets that the authority of the secretary of health “is clearly outlined in existing law” and that the decision was going to be appealed before the end of the day.
That would immediately block the decision, they said.
Judges Ellen Ceisler, a Democrat, and Republicans Mary Hannah Leavitt and Patricia McCullough joined Cannon.
Judge Michael Wojcik, a Democrat, dissented. He said the health secretary has the authority to take “any disease control measure appropriate to protect the public from the spread of infectious disease” and that her order was not a rule or regulation, which would be treated differently under state law.
Wolf announced earlier this week that he would let local leaders decide on masking starting Jan. 17, 2022.
Mask mandates in schools have become a divisive issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some experts say that masks curb transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, while others remain skeptical that is the case.
The majority said they were not ruling on the science or efficacy of mask-wearing “or the politics underlying the considerable controversy the subject continues to engender.”