Lack of emergency order or regulation doomed Pa. mask mandate

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The state Supreme Court on Thursday released its rationale for why it ruled that Gov. Tom Wolf's administration had no legal authority to require masks in Pennsylvania's schools and child care centers, even amid a pandemic and surging cases of COVID-19.

The Democratic-majority court ruled 6-0 on Dec. 10, immediately ending the statewide mask mandate, except in school districts that still required them. Justice Thomas Saylor did not participate in the decision.

The justices' 58-page opinion released Thursday does not discuss whether school districts have the legal authority to require masks.

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But the justices wrote that the Republican-controlled Legislature's move in June to end Wolf's COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration also eliminated any legal justification for a school mask mandate.

The justices note that state law gives the Department of Health broad authority to protect public health, but it doesn't permit the department “to act by whim or fiat in all matters concerning disease” without specific regulations that empower a mask mandate, they wrote.

First grade students at Dunmore Elementary Center in Dunmore, Pa., wear masks on their first day of classes on Aug. 27, 2020. The legality of an order by Pennsylvania’s acting state Health secretary requiring masks in K-12 schools and child care facilities is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The two sides are set to argue their respective positions before the justices on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021 in Philadelphia. (Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune via AP)

They also wrote that they doubted lawmakers intended to grant that sort of power in the law, given how many current regulations guide how the department exercises its authority.

Regulations under the state's disease control law deal with quarantine and surveillance measures, but not a mask mandate that applies broadly and without a definite time limit, the justices wrote.

The lawsuit was filed by Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre; state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford; two religious schools; three public school districts; and several parents of schoolchildren.