The Lead

Pa. mask mandate must expire in December, state court judge says

By: - November 16, 2021 7:32 pm
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Absent further legal action, Pennsylvania’s universal mask mandate for K-12 schools and child care facilities will end in December, a state judge said Tuesday.

Nearly one week after a Commonwealth Court panel tossed acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam’s mask mandate in a 4-1 ruling, Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon said the universal order must end Dec. 4

The decision reverses the automatic stay triggered when Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Nov. 10.

The appeal is still pending before the state’s highest court, but the respondents in the case, including legislative Republicans, private schools, and a group of parents, asked the stay be lifted. In the decision, Cannon agreed that the respondents would win on appeal and noted that the Wolf administration has other means of imposing a mandate, including the regulatory review process.

Using powers issued under the 1929 law establishing the Health Department and a 1955 law on infectious disease control, Beam first issued the order in August as schools reopened for in-person learning amid rising COVID-19 cases. 

The mandate, which has been in effect since Sept. 7, applies to all students, teachers, and staff at K-12 schools and child care providers, regardless of one’s vaccination status.

Earlier this month, and days before the court’s decision, Wolf announced that Pennsylvania public schools, but not early childhood education facilities, could alter or terminate the mask mandate, beginning Jan. 17, 2022. The administration’s decision came one week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on Pfizer’s pediatric COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 and older.

Pandemic response — statewide shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and mask mandates — have been the subject of an ongoing debate in Harrisburg since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Republicans, who hold the majority in the Legislature, have challenged the executive branch’s mitigation efforts, even advocating for a constitutional change that curtailed the governor’s emergency response powers in the May primary election.

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