Pennsylvania’s requirement that teachers and school students and staff must wear masks to guard against COVID-19 is invalid because the official who issued it lacked authority to do so, a sharply divided Commonwealth Court ruled Wednesday.
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam issued that order in August and it has been in force since Sept. 7, causing considerable discord among parents who oppose or favor the measure.
Yet Beam had no legal standing to issue such and edict because Gov. Tom Wolf did not have a disaster emergency proclamation in effect that would make the measure enforceable, Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon concluded in the state court’s majority ruling.
It’s not yet clear what the ruling means practically for schools and students.
Also, Beam’s order is void because it did not comply with the terms of an amendment voters approved to the state constitution in May that gives the Legislature authority to override an emergency proclamation by the governor, Cannon found.
The court majority reached those conclusions in weighing two challenges to the mask mandate, one of them led by state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican.
Unveiling of the Commonwealth Court decision came hours after Corman’s office announced that the senator, who has been vaccinated, had tested positive for COVID-19 and was experiencing mild symptoms.
“We note that we express herein no opinion regarding the science or efficacy of mask-wearing or the politics underlying the considerable controversy the subject continues to engender,” Cannon wrote. “Instead, we decide herein only the narrow legal question of whether the acting secretary acted properly in issuing the masking order in the absence of either legislative oversight or a declaration of disaster emergency by the governor.”
Judge Michael Wojcik filed a dissenting opinion. He argued that Beam not only had authority to issue the mask order and that the mandate was a justified attempt to stem the spread of a dreaded disease.
“The secretary has acted according to the statutory and regulatory authority conferred upon her to protect the vulnerable student population … by the least restrictive and ‘the most efficient and practical means’ available while the lethal COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect and kill the residents of this commonwealth,” Wojcik wrote.
Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesman for Wolf, said the Commonwealth Court will be appealed immediately, putting the mask ruling on temporary hold. “The Secretary of Health’s authority is clearly outlined in existing law,” she said.
The majority decision does not address whether individual school districts can still impose their own mask mandates. On Monday, Wolf said he had intended to return the mask/no mask decision to the districts in January. The Commonwealth Court decision, if it stands, would accelerate that process.