Lancaster County’s two Republican state senators vowed Tuesday to take action against Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement of a statewide mask mandate at K-12 schools and child care centers.
Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin announced efforts to challenge the mask mandate, which came after the governor had repeatedly said he would leave masking policies to individual districts. Aument said in a release that he is discussing legislation to amend Pennsylvania’s Disease Prevention and Control Law to “ensure that local control and flexibility is preserved in this and future pandemics.” It’s under this 1955 law that Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam signed the order Tuesday requiring masks in schools and child care centers.
“Looking at the vast differences in case data across the state, it is difficult to understand why anyone would think that the most appropriate policy solution is to force every community to follow the same mandate, without regard for vaccination rates, current caseload, or other relevant local data,” Aument said in a statement. “I trust local school districts to make appropriate decisions that are in the best interest of their students, teachers, and staff. Governor Wolf should too.”
Martin circulated a co-sponsorship memorandum to his colleagues stating his intent to clarify the state disease prevention law to ensure the Secretary of Health can only utilize those powers when there is an existing emergency declaration. He also announced he will host a Senate Education Committee hearing on the issue and has requested the state departments of health and education provide the data that led to Tuesday’s announcement.
Wolf attributed his change in position to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases across the state and efforts to pressure local school boards to ignore Centers for Disease Control recommendations. These issues made it necessary for Beam to use her authority and issue a statewide mandate, Wolf said.
Martin questioned why the mask mandate won’t take effect until Sept. 7.
“If he truly believed things are bad enough to require these actions, why is he waiting while students still are attending school the rest of this week,” Martin said in a statement.
Wolf has maintained for months that his administration can take action in public health emergencies even without an emergency declaration. The Republican-controlled Legislature has tried unsuccessfully to change the Disease Prevention and Control Law, while also claiming that healthy Pennsylvanians should not be subject to these orders.
Any effort by the Legislature to limit the powers of the state health secretary would almost certainly be vetoed by Wolf. The Republicans currently lack sufficient majorities in both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto.
Martin and Aument previously co-sponsored Senate Bill 618 (which was backed by every Republican legislator from the county at the time) to outlaw proof of vaccination to access any government building or school that receives taxpayer funds. Additionally, it would have prevented the secretary of health from restricting travel, mandating universal mask use or close businesses. Wolf vetoed it.
Almost all of Lancaster County’s Republican legislators came to the defense of local control over mask use after Wolf’s announcement. Tuesday’s announcement would require 14 of the county’s 17 school districts to change mask policies and require mask usage throughout the school day.
In a release from Reps. Mindy Fee, R-Manheim Borough; Dave Hickernell, R-West Donegal Township; Keith Greiner, R-Upper Leacock Township; Dave Zimmerman, R-East Earl Township, and Brett Miller, R-East Hempfield Township, the lawmakers criticized Wolf for reversing his previous statements and “revert(ing) back to his ways of being the sole decision-maker on masking mandates for our students.”
“Schools are now open in every Lancaster County school district, and our school boards and district officials have been diligent in listening to parents and medical officials to make decisions, community by community, based on the feedback they received,” the lawmakers said. “We stand behind our local school boards and support the decisions they make on behalf of their students, families, and staff.”
Rep. Steve Mentzer, R-Manheim Township, who did not release a formal statement Tuesday, said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline he believes mask mandates are “best made at the local level.”
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Drumore Township, did not release a statement Tuesday, but has consistently supported local control on the issue. Last week, Wolf asked the Legislature to pass a mask mandate. Cutler and President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre County, responded in a letter to Wolf saying they would not take action. The letter said masking policies should be determined by individual school districts.