Gov. Tom Wolf finally imposed a school mask mandate. It’s about time | Wednesday Morning Coffee

Republican cries of government overreach don’t hold water. The administration should have acted weeks ago

September 1, 2021 7:16 am

Gov. Tom Wolf joined legislative leaders and education stakeholders at the state Capitol to celebrate the largest state funding increase for public school students in Pennsylvania history and the groundbreaking funding in the new Level Up initiative to provide an additional $100 million to the 100 lowest wealth school districts (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement on Tuesday that he was imposing a mask mandate for staff and students Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools and child care centers was the right call, even if it came — to borrow a phrase — after the Democratic administration had exhausted all other alternatives.

The masking mandate, which takes effect on Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day, comes after weeks of pitched battles across the state that pitted parents against local school boards, who found themselves acting both as regulatory bodies and amateur epidemiologists, as they debated local masking requirements.

Some of the more acrimonious local sessions included parents hurling Nazi salutes at unpaid, volunteer school board members who are, at the end of the day, their neighbors. On Sunday, the Republican nominee for Northampton County executive thuggishly vowed to bring ’20 strong men’ into local school board meetings to intimidate them into seeing the “error” of their ways, the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported.

None of this would have happened, it’s worth pointing out, if Wolf hadn’t spent several weeks saying he was leaving it up to local school boards to make the call because he lacked the legislative authority to act on his own, only to apparently discover that he had the power to do it all along.

In a statement, Wolf, who faced a deservedly significant amount of friendly fire from progressives over his prior policy, said he was finally moved to act in response to an “aggressive nationwide campaign in spreading misinformation about mask-wearing and pressuring and intimidating school districts to reject mask policies that will keep kids safe and in school.”

Acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam, who actually signed the order authorized under the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law, observed that with “case counts increasing, the situation has reached the point that we need to take this action to protect our children, teachers and staff. The science is clear. If we want to keep our schools open, maintain classroom learning and allow sports and other activities to continue, masking significantly increases our chances of doing so.”

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre  (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

Legislative Republicans, who remain ardent supporters of local control, except when they aren’t (local gun rules, local minimum wage ordinances, local paid sick leave ordinances…), pounced, slamming Wolf for usurping the authority of local school boards, and for doing an end-run around a pair of recently approved constitutional amendments clipping his emergency powers.

“The best approach to protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvanians from the COVID-19 delta variant is a personal and local decision not a government decision. COVID-19 is not going away, and school has just begun,” Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said in a statement.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, teed off on Wolf for allowing school boards … errr … too much local control.

“The timing of this announcement is also extremely problematic. Over the past month, school board meetings were turned into public spectacles with school board directors, parents, teachers and community members lobbing insults and accusations,” Corman harrumphed. “It is disappointing Governor Wolf stood idly by and allowed our communities to be torn apart by this debate, only to pull the rug out from everyone at the last minute. Our school boards deserve an apology for the governor’s dereliction of duty.”

It’s worth pointing out here that, when Wolf asked Republican legislative leaders to cut their summer vacations short and pass legislation imposing a mask mandate, they declined, thus allowing, in Corman’s words, “communities to be torn apart by this debate,” for a couple of extra days.

Presumably, they had their hands full tamping down an intra-party squabble over an entirely superfluous investigation of an election whose results have long since been settled.

Less than an hour after Wolf’s Tuesday news conference on the new mandate, two Senate GOP backbenchers, Sens. Judy Ward, of Blair County, and Doug Mastriano, of Franklin County, introduced legislation trying to undo it.

Ward is a nurse, so her opposition to basic public health measures, while ideologically consistent, is no less maddening. Until last week, Mastriano was in charge of that superfluous election investigation — that is, until Corman stripped him of his committee chairmanship, and put someone else in charge. So maybe he just needed something to do.

LOUISVILLE, KY – MARCH 17: A teacher walks among the the masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. Today marks the reopening of Jefferson County Public Schools for in-person learning with new COVID-19 procedures in place. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Writing in the Washington Post on Tuesday, the columnist Eugene Robinson waxed rhapsodic for a time when crises actually united the country and its political leaders, instead of setting them at each others’ throats. While it dealt specifically with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, its arguments are still applicable in this instance.

“I can’t help but imagine what today’s Twitter trolls would have said about President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the day after Pearl Harbor,” Robinson wrote. “And I shudder to think what contemporary conspiracy theorists might have said about the announcement of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine 10 years after the death of Roosevelt, who suffered from the disease.”

These days, it’s attack, fundraise on the back of the attack, and attack some more. And I’ll stipulate that we’ve reached the point we’re at now after months of acrimony between the Democratic front office and the Republican-controlled General Assembly (some of it entirely earned by Wolf).

But the fact of the matter is, the state mandates stuff all the time as a condition of participation in society.

The mask mandate is of a piece with polio and MMR vaccine requirements. It’s of a piece with requiring your kid to ride in a car seat until they’re too big to need one. That doesn’t impinge on parental freedom. They’re common sense measures that keep our children safe. And most of us, Republicans included, don’t blink an eye at them.

Wolf should have acted weeks ago. And if the GOP were truly serious about its tradition of personal responsibility it would embrace the mask mandate because it’s the best thing for society, writ large, since it keeps all of us safe.

But that’s state government: Finally doing the correct thing after exhausting every other alternative.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
From Staff Reporters Stephen Caruso and Marley Parishhere’s our full story on the administration’s statewide mask mandate.

Tuesday was Overdose Awareness Day, and families and advocates called on elected officials to ‘recommit’ to fighting the opioid epidemicCassie Miller reports.

Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation has its say on the end of America’s longest warCapital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa and I write.

On our Commentary Page this morning, columnist Rob Schofield, of our sibling site NC Policy Watch, says it’s time to set the record straight on the political ancestry of modern American racism. And Signe Espinoza, the interim director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, says GOP lawmakers are wrong on two counts: Vaccines and abortion both are healthcare.

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

The Philadelphia schools and its teachers union have reached a ‘tentative’ contract agreement, the Inquirer reports.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh say a flu and COVID-19 ‘twindemic’ is possible this winter, the Post-Gazette reports.

The healthcare needs of central Pennsylvania’s poorest residents have no racial, ethnic, or geographic boundariesPennLive reports.

Parents and others in Lancaster County talk to LancasterOnline about the new mask mandate.

School officials in the Lehigh Valley say the Wolf administration is ‘a little late to the party,’ with its mandate, the Morning Call reports.

The Citizens’ Voice has safety tips for readers as the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida bear down on Pennsylvania this Wednesday morning (paywall).

WHYY-FM explains why the pandemic has prompted a ‘fresh look’ at Hispanic healthcare needs.

WITF-FM looks at efforts to educate the post-9/11 generation about the history of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Former President George W. Bush will deliver keynote remarks during the 20th anniversary observance of the attacks at the Flight 93 Memorial in Somerset County, PoliticsPA reports.

The reaction to the Kabul attack is a reminder that bipartisanship during a time of crisis is a distant memoryRoll Call’s Nathan Gonzales writes.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:


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What Goes On
10 a.m., 60 East Wing: House Commerce Committee
10 a.m., Virtual Only: House Democratic Policy Committee
10 a.m, 333 Market St., 14th Floor: Harrisburg: Independent Regulatory Review Commission            11 a.m., Online: The Pennsylvania State Police and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency brief on Tropical Storm Ida

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to veteran Harrisburg PR hand, Lucy Gnazzo, and to NPR political reporter Scott Detrow, both of whom celebrate today.

Heavy Rotation
It felt like time to catch up with some old friends this morning. Here’s the absolutely gorgeous ‘Gentle Storm,’ from Elbow.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link
As the summer transfer window closes, England star Harry Kane says he has no regrets about trying to force a move from Tottenham Hotspur, the Guardian reports.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.