HARRISBURG – The House Health Committee has asked an obscure state committee to weigh in on whether Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam has the authority to order schools to mandate masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Democrats dismissed the move as “political theater” attacking a necessary public health measure.

State Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, the chairwoman of the House Health Committee, said she hopes the letter will prompt the Commonwealth Joint Committee on Documents to determine if Beam’s school mask mandate should be handled as a regulatory change rather than as an order that takes effect immediately.

“It is my strong belief that the secretary does not have the authority to proclaim this order. Because it is being interpreted as law. It would be no different than the Secretary of Agriculture sending out an order that all children in a school district should drink a half a pint of milk for lunch every day,” Rapp said. “We are not under a declared emergency. She does not have the authority, in our opinion, to send out this order.”

State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence, said the Wolf administration only made the move to order the state mask mandate after most local school officials balked at passing mask mandates in their districts and Republicans who hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly refused to pass a state law mandating masks in schools.

“I think it’s so imperative that we think of the process because what we do in this building has implications for the next 100 years or 150 years or however long that is, and this governor has said three separate things and changed his mind very quickly,” Bernstine said.

The move by the Health Committee comes after Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court challenging the governor’s mask mandate. Lawmakers are also planning to return to the Capitol next week to consider other legislation in response to the school mask mandate.

Rapp said the Health Committee’s move, along with the other efforts to limit the mask mandate are means to “cover all the bases.”

She declined to speculate about what the Committee on Documents might do in response to the Health Committee’s request for review of the order.

The majority of the 11-person panel are Democrats or members appointed by the governor – including Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic leaders of the state House and state Senate, two members of the public appointed by Wolf, and Wolf’s Secretary of General Services Curt Topper and General Counsel Gregory G. Schwab.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, the Democratic chairman of the Health Committee, said Democrats would not join their Republican colleagues in signing the letter to the Committee on Documents, dismissing the move as an “exercise in political theater.”

The House Health Committee voted on a 15-5 party-line vote to ask the Committee on Documents to review Beam’s order.

Frankel said the state’s Disease Control and Prevention Law provides the Secretary of Health with the flexibility to make such orders in order to quickly respond to the changing circumstances caused by a public health calamity such as COVID-19.

“This process would take months, but as you can see, it usually takes years. Meanwhile, hospitals are filling up with adults and children,” Frankel said.

“It’s important to emphasize there is no such thing as in-person learning without mitigation policies. We either allow outbreaks that force school closures and children to quarantine or we act responsibly by continuing science-based policies that protect our children in the classroom.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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