Pennsylvania Republicans Try to Block School Mask Order

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas:
September 14, 2021 Updated: September 15, 2021

The debate over requiring Pennsylvania school children to wear masks in schools and at child care centers continued on Sept. 14 in Harrisburg, with a letter from the House Health Committee challenging Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam’s authority to order masks in schools.

In late August, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, asked the General Assembly to return to the state capital and approve a mandate requiring all schools and child care centers to make children wear masks to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. The Republican-led General Assembly leadership refused.

Within days, Beam issued an order requiring masks to be worn inside K-12 school buildings, early learning programs, and child care providers.

“It is my strong belief that the secretary does not have the authority to proclaim this order because it is being interpreted as law,” Health Committee Majority Chair Kathy Rapp said during a Sept. 14 committee meeting.

“It would be no different than the secretary of agriculture sending out an order that all children in a school district should drink a half a pint of milk for lunch every day. We would look at that and say that’s not a law; they don’t have to abide by that, because he has not the authority. It’s the same with the secretary of health. We are not under a declared emergency.

“She does not have the authority, in our opinion, to send out this order and have people obey this order.”

Rapp, a Republican, noted that only the General Assembly can make laws, and the governor only signs or declines to sign laws. But Cabinet secretaries can’t write or sign laws. Previous health department masking orders were issued under an emergency declaration, but the emergency is no longer in effect.

In a split vote, the committee agreed to send a letter to the Commonwealth Joint Committee on Documents asking it to determine if Beam’s order should be promulgated as a regulation.

Democrat Dan Frankel, Health Committee minority chair, called the letter an exercise in political theater and said minority members wouldn’t support sending the letter. Sitting just inches away from Rapp, who didn’t wear a mask, Frankel removed his mask to speak.

“While the review process is an important check on the executive branch overall, we feel it is not suited to the fast-moving threat of a highly contagious virus such as COVID-19,” Frankel said. “There is no such thing as in-person learning without mitigation policies. We either allow outbreaks that force school closures and children to quarantine, or we act responsibly by continuing science-based policies that protect our children in the classroom.”

Rapp reminded committee members that there’s nothing preventing anyone from wearing a mask.

“The issue here is the force of an order which we do not believe is law,” Rapp said. “What would prevent any other secretary from issuing an order without the rule of law? Without regulation? I just do not believe this is constitutional.”

Frankel removed his mask again to speak.

“I’m flabbergasted that we have come to this point and time where public health has become a partisan, political issue,” Frankel said. “We need to get back to a point and time where we argue about things, we discuss things, we have disagreements, but we put public health on a different platform. Public health should not be politicized. That is what is going on here.”

The letter was hand-delivered on Sept. 14 to the Commonwealth Joint Committee on Documents, which went right to work. Committee Chairman Vince DeLiberato told The Epoch Times that a letter has been sent to the Department of Health, which must respond by Oct. 4, and then each side will have a week to submit legal arguments to the committee. After that, a hearing will be held the week of Oct. 18.

If the Commonwealth Joint Committee on Documents finds that the Department of Health’s mask order should be a regulation that requires promulgation, the department has 180 days to complete the lengthy promulgation (approval) process, or cease and desist enforcing the order. If the committee finds that the order doesn’t need to be promulgated, the order stands.

Whichever party loses, the House Health Committee or the Department of Health could appeal the decision to the Commonwealth Court.

In the meantime, the mask order is considered in effect, DeLiberato said.

Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: