FILE PA Secretary of Health Alison Beam

Pennsylvania acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Senate lawmakers approved a measure Wednesday that would strip away the authority of the Department of Health to implement mandatory masking and social distancing orders.

The amendment, tucked into a broadly liked bill to ban vaccine passports, eviscerated any bipartisan support for the proposal, Senate Bill 618.

“This whole thing turned into a political punch at our governor,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Bethlehem. “I was going to vote yes, but because of that amendment, it’s an easy 'no' vote for me because it’s so totally irresponsible.”

Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, and Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, co-sponsored the legislation in April on the heels of New York’s Excelsior Pass launch. The app provides digital proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or negative test using a QR code that is connected to the state's vaccine registry and the databases of several testing companies.

“As every Pennsylvanian who wants to receive the vaccine does so, we are saying the state or local governmental entities should not involve itself in personal health care information of the public,” Phillips-Hill said Wednesday. “We have seen failures in the state in how it mismanaged personal health care data in its contact tracing program, so today, the Senate took a firm stand that the state will not continue its ‘data creep’ into these very sensitive records and information by avoiding the slippery slope that is a vaccine passport.” 

The Department of Health said it was not something the administration was considering, preferring instead to focus on boosting vaccination rates. But it did lean on the state Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 to sign universal masking and stay-at-home orders during the height of the pandemic. 

The two constitutional amendments approved by voters last month only limit the governor’s emergency authority, but do nothing to prevent the secretary of health from imposing orders stemming from a public health emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This bill at all levels is about preventing government overreach whether it's mandating a vaccine or mandating masking, social isolation, or business closures,” Ward said Wednesday. “For the past 15 months, Pennsylvanians have experienced unprecedented government intrusion into their lives without any input from their elected representatives in the General Assembly. Today’s action ensures that does not happen in the future.”

Democrats panned the effort as unnecessary and “reckless" political retribution. It’s expected that Gov. Tom Wolf would veto the bill, should it ever reach his desk. The 29-20 vote sends the bill to the House of Representatives for consideration.

“Why are we doing this? Just because some people in this building don’t like Gov. Wolf, and that makes no sense to me,” Boscola said. “It’s clearly not the responsible thing to do.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.