Three weeks after voters limited the emergency powers of Gov. Tom Wolf and his successors, the Pennsylvania state Senate has moved to impose similar restrictions on the state health secretary.
The GOP-controlled chamber voted 29-20 on Wednesday to approve legislation that prohibits the Keystone State’s top public health official from mandating stay-at-home orders, imposing masking and social distancing guidelines, and ordering business closures.
The legislation also bars the state’s health secretary from requiring individuals to “conduct a specific hygienic practice,” such as hand washing.
The legislation — sponsored by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York — was introduced last month as a vaccine passport bill that would prohibit the government from requiring proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to receive services. Two amendments were added to the proposal on third consideration. One change expands the “vaccine passport” restriction to postsecondary institutions that receive state funding.
But another amendment from Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, who sponsored the language, aims to take away what she called “unilateral power” from the health secretary, who is not an elected official.
“Nothing in this amendment prevents the secretary from being able to protect the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians,” Ward, a nurse, said Tuesday before the Senate vote on the amendment. “Rather, the amendment simply prevents one person from unilaterally throwing tens of thousands of citizens out of work, barring children from school, and spending millions of taxpayer dollars.”
She added: “When it comes to limits on civil liberties, I think more voices representing the will of the people make for better emergency response and a more enduring freedom.”
If the bill becomes law, the health secretary would be required to explain to the General Assembly why mitigation efforts are necessary to respond to an emergency.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, said she was supportive of the legislation when it was first proposed, but the “irresponsible” amendment to restrict the health secretary changed her mind, she said — calling the change “reckless policy.”
“The amendment precludes the secretary of health from instituting protective measures to address future public health crises — and some that could be far more contagious, far more deadly than COVID,” she said Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, argued that Ward’s amendment would restrict those who are qualified to respond to emergencies. He noted how state lawmakers have looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for pandemic guidance since March 2020.
The legislation now goes to the state House for consideration. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he will veto it.