Gov. Tom Wolf's mask mandate must expire Dec. 4, judge rules amid school debate

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

A Pennsylvania judge has ruled that an order that requires masks to be worn inside K-12 schools and child care facilities must expire Dec. 4, although that is unlikely to be the final legal development in the case.

The decision Tuesday comes, of course, in the midst of rising COVID-19 cases nationwide and in York County.

The ruling by Commonwealth Court Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon came down a week after the court threw out the statewide mask mandate, and it lifts the automatic suspension of that decision granted when Gov. Tom Wolf's administration appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Cannon's ruling, in theory, gives time for the state Supreme Court to take up the case or for the Wolf administration to write and enact a mask mandate through an emergency regulation.

More:Pa. court throws out Wolf's school mask mandate; West York a petitioner in lawsuit

More:Wolf to end mask mandate for schools, let districts set own rules in January

In a 4-1 ruling last week, Commonwealth Court sided with a legal challenge to the masking order that took effect in early September amid rising coronavirus cases and concerns about the surge of the delta variant.

The judges agreed with the challengers that state law did not explicitly allow acting Health Secretary Alison Beam to order a mask mandate to contain a disease, and the state never created a regulation under the state's disease control law to allow it.

Two days earlier, Wolf had announced he would return authority over masking decisions to local school districts on Jan. 17 but intended to continue masking in child care centers and early learning programs.

West York, a petitioner in the lawsuit, discussed Cannon's ruling at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Board member George Margetas made a motion to remove the district's mask requirement in all West York buildings immediately, arguing that his interpretation of Cannon's decision was that the order was effectively dead. 

Other board members disagreed. 

"I believe in the rule of law. This one's a pretty clear-cut one for me," said outgoing board member Suzanne Smith. "When it says Dec. 4 the mandate will be lifted, then that's when we lift our order in the school."

Margetas' motion failed in a 3-5 vote. Earlier in the meeting, Margetas also made a motion to allow board members to forgo masks during meetings, effective immediately, which also failed in a 3-5 vote. Margetas went without a mask for the remainder of the meeting anyway. 

Margetas is not the first York County board member to attempt such a motion. In September, outgoing Northeastern board member Eric Hornberger made a similar motion for his district to reject the order and keep masks optional in schools, which failed with Hornberger the only vote in favor. 

More:School districts weigh risks of supporting anti-mask lawsuit

Following the court's decision to throw out the mask order, multiple school districts, including West York, sent out messages clarifying that because of the state's appeal, the mask order would remain in effect. West York also announced it would alter its exemption process to allow students to forgo masks based on parental choice. 

School districts who defy the state order risk legal repercussions. At least two Pennsylvania districts — in Warren County and North Allegheny — have already faced injunctions by federal judges for trying to keep masks optional after the order took effect, forcing them to reinstate the requirement. 

West York ultimately passed a separate motion later in their meeting to automatically remove the district's mask requirement as soon as the state order is lifted. Board members considered including Dec. 4 as the date they would lift the requirement, but decided against it in the event that the expiration deadline is extended. 

Margetas voted in support of that motion, but he also requested the board discuss the mask order again at their next meeting Dec. 7. 

Temple University epidemiologist Krys Johnson said she expects COVID-19 cases to continue to rise heading into colder months, as colder areas of the U.S. are already seeing an uptick in cases.

She said it would be best to keep the mask mandate in place through respiratory disease season, which goes through March. Along with COVID-19, Johnson said, the flu season also poses a risk for schools.

"The flu could definitely be a problem if the mask order is lifted," Johnson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Reach Erin Bamer at ebamer@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @ErinBamer.