York County DA won't pursue charges against mask mandate violators

Brandon Addeo
York Dispatch
Andrea Harrison, left, and Elizabeth Kaiser rally outside the Central York School District offices prior to a school board meeting Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. They were advocating for keeping the district's mask-optional protocol. Bill Kalina photo

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday announced that his office won't prosecute anyone who violates Gov. Tom Wolf's new statewide mask mandate for schools.

On Friday, the county's top law enforcement official released a memo stating that his office was instructing police departments not to file criminal charges against anyone who violates the mask order. Sunday said his office wouldn't prosecute any charges relating to alleged mask violations.

The memo marks a rebuke of Wolf's mandate, as some Republican lawmakers work to challenge what they called an unconstitutional action. Prior to Wolf's announcement, four local school districts had some form of a mask mandate already in place.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday discusses the, "Report of the York County Investigating Grand Jury into the April 9, 2018 death of Everett Palmer Jr.," at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The state's health department issued the order Aug. 31, requiring students ages 2 and up, teachers and all others inside school buildings to wear masks. 

Sunday pointed to previous decisions by his office in 2020 to not prosecute violations of similar state COVID-19 orders. 

"Citizens cannot be subjected at risk of criminal penalty to restrictions whose terms continuously change," Sunday wrote about his office's decision in May 2020 not to pursue criminal charges for violating state health orders. "Rapid changes in the definition of what constitutes criminal conduct renders the application of criminal law as arbitrary and impossible to follow or defend against."

The district attorney said this decision only applies to criminal charges, and that civil and administrative sanctions for mask violations — outside his office's purview — are still possible. 

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"At no point should these instructions be interpreted in any fashion as detracting from the seriousness of COVID-19, downplaying the personal responsibility that we share towards each other in our community, or as providing any guidance regarding the applicability" of the order, the memo stated. 

Sunday did warn that any criminal conduct arising from mask disputes, including harassments, threats and violence, will "not be tolerated" and would be "fully prosecuted" by his office.

A spokesperson for Wolf's office, Lyndsay Kensinger, did not comment on Sunday's decision but made a statement about school officials who do not follow the state order:

"School officials who fail to adhere to the order could lose the protection of sovereign immunity and may personally face lawsuits from those who may be affected by any official’s attempt to ignore the order."

READ MORE: York County split on Gov. Tom Wolf's new mask mandate