Measure On Masking In Youth Sports Clears House Committee

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Legislation that cleared a House committee on Monday would give Pennsylvania school districts the authority to decide whether student-athletes must wear masks while playing, as GOP lawmakers continue looking at a more aggressive move against the governor's universal mask mandate in schools.

The Republican-controlled House State Government Committee approved the sports masking measure 15-10 along party lines. It would give “exclusive authority” to schools, recreational clubs, community leagues and similar groups to set masking policy for youth athletes, though its practical impact would likely be minimal, given that current state policy already exempts youth athletes from having to cover their faces during practice or games.

GOP leaders in the state House have promised to mount a legislative response to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide mask mandate for schools, which requires students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities to wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The universal masking order has been met with fierce resistance by some school boards and anti-mask parents and students.

But so far, there has been no movement by majority Republicans on a wider bill to prevent the state from imposing a mask mandate on students and teachers in schools.

“The caucus will continue its discussion from last week on a potential legislative response this week to the administration’s latest unilateral mask mandate,” House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said Monday,

The sponsor of the sports masking bill, Rep. Eric Davanzo, R-Westmoreland, said it is intended to shift power to school boards and other local officials. Athletes who want to wear masks still could, even if a mandate is not in place, he said.

“If you want to wear the mask, wear it,” Davanzo said during committee debate. “Nowhere in here does it say you can’t wear a mask.”

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, suggested during the debate that he may draw up an amendment to the bill to require health professionals to be consulted by school boards or sports organizations before they make a decision.

Three other coronavirus-related measures cleared House committees, two on Monday and one last week, as Republicans seek to chip away at COVID-19 restrictions.

One bill would require any school district that does not offer full-time, in-person instruction to establish a tuition grant program. Another would expand public access to Department of Health data on COVID-19 and other diseases. The third would limit a governor’s ability to impose new regulations during a statewide disaster emergency, unless it’s “directly related” to the emergency response.

In other coronavirus related developments in Pennsylvania on Monday:

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VACCINATION RATES

Republicans represent 19 of the 20 least-vaccinated Senate districts in Pennsylvania, according to statistics released Monday by the Democratic governor.

On the House side, the GOP controls 18 of 20 districts with the lowest vaccination rates, the data show.

Wolf had previously vowed to release vaccination reports by legislative district, noting that vaccination efforts were lagging in some areas of the state — including those with GOP representation.

“Our unified goal should be to strive to protect the health and safety of all residents,” Wolf said in a written statement. “It is our hope that this information will help inform members of the General Assembly, stakeholders, and community members, to join us in encouraging Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated.”

The statistics were unsurprising, as there has long been a partisan divide when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.

While vaccine uptake tends to be lower in Republican areas, the GOP also boasted some of the state's most-vaccinated districts — including No. 1 on the Senate side and 13 of the top 20 House districts.

The statistics do not include Philadelphia, which has its own vaccine supply.

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Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this report.