Gov. Wolf, it's time for a mask mandate, whether or not the Legislature plays ball

York Dispatch Editorial Board

This week, Gov. Tom Wolf sat right down and wrote himself a letter.

“It is clear that action is needed to ensure children are safe as they return to school,” Wolf wrote, asking Republican Legislative leaders to return to Harrisburg to pass a mask mandate for all Pennsylvania schools.

Just 59 school districts had done so by the end of July, according to that letter. Quite a few more joined that list since then — including several in York County — as a fourth wave of infection driven by the delta variant surged nationwide.

But let's be real.

That's not enough.

There's no evidence that wearing a mask inflicts any harm on schoolchildren. But there's plenty to show that it prevents the spread of COVID-19.

And that's what we need.

Right now.

Not tomorrow or next month or whenever the Legislature deigns to reconvene to maybe consider renewing the mandate. Or, more likely, not consider it.

Reaction to Wolf's request was swift ... and definitive.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, told our colleagues at Spotlight PA that leadership had no plans to return before session was slated to begin again in September.

"We've been for local decision-making since the beginning of the pandemic," he added.

Translation for those not yet versed in political-ese: Don't hold your breath.

On the Senate side, Majority Leader Kim Ward issued a written statement in which she expressed confidence in school districts to make their own decisions.

"It is important to ensure the resources available and decisions being made are not used to strong-arm or pressure individuals," the Westmoreland County Republican wrote.

That sounds a lot like "no."

Meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."

Pretty unequivocal, right?

Local choices are fine but seatbelts and stoplights aren't optional. At this point, with caseloads increasing, hospital ICUs filling up and morgues soon to follow, masks should not be a matter for debate.

We understand and support Wolf's attempt at magnanimity. Consensus is a wonderful thing and it feels so good.

Public health decisions, however, are too important to be decided by committee.

And there's a readymade solution, at least according to Wolf's Department of Health. Back in November, in response to a referendum that curtailed the governor's emergency powers, the department's legal staff reviewed Pennsylvania's statutes. They determined that the state's health secretary did indeed have the necessary authority to issue a mask mandate regardless what the Legislature did.

Citing a 1955 law granting the secretary broad powers "to safeguard human life and health throughout the commonwealth," the department concluded that she "may order general control measures, including, but not limited to, closure, isolation, and quarantine."

We're not lawyers and what is or is not legal is ultimately decided by judges, anyway, but if Wolf's people believe his administration has the power to do this, let's get it done.

Paging Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam.

Your pen is waiting.

Like what you're reading? Consider subscribing to The York Dispatch.