PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) — Several businesses and residents have filed suits in a Pennsylvania state court to overturn Philadelphia’s renewed indoor mask mandate, which is scheduled to be enforced beginning Monday to stem a surge in COVID-19 infections.
The lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court on Saturday, says Philadelphia does not have the authority to issue such a mandate.
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Last week, Philadelphia became the first major US city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate after reporting a sharp rise in coronavirus infections. The city’s top health official said she wanted to forestall a potential new wave powered by an Omicron subvariant.
Attorney Thomas W. King III, who helped successfully challenge the statewide mask requirement in schools last year, said the city’s emergency order contradicted recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “enforced a breakaway standard that has not been found anywhere else in the world.”
“Philadelphia actually abolished the CDC guidelines as a standard and they invented their own guidelines,” King III said. to Eyewitness News. “They invent this stuff. I want the state Commonwealth Court to overturn this mandate as a violation of Pennsylvania law.”
The lawsuit alleges that the city’s health officials have usurped “the power and authority” of the state legislature, the state health department and the state health advisory board.
“We have people here who have saved their entire lives to run restaurants, open gyms, chiropractic services and other businesses in Philadelphia,” King III said. “What they’re telling me is that if these mask mandates are in place and people have to wear masks indoors, they’re going to lose a significant chunk of their business.”
Kevin Lessard, communications director for the Philadelphia mayor’s office, said officials were “unable to comment on this particular case,” but cited a court’s denial of an emergency motion by another plaintiff for an injunction against the mandate. Lessard said, “The courts have again confirmed that the city has both the legal authority and the necessary flexibility to take the precautionary measures needed to control the spread of COVID-19.”
Most states and cities dropped their mask requirements in February and early March under new guidance from the CDC, which put less focus on case counts and more on hospital capacity, saying most Americans can safely remove their masks.
Philadelphia had ended its indoor mask mandate on March 2. But last week quoted Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the health commissioner, reported a more than 50% increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in 10 days, the threshold at which city guidelines require people to wear masks indoors.
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Starting Monday, the city is moving to a Level 2 mask precaution, which means masks are required in public places like businesses, schools and indoor daycares. Philadelphia currently has an average of 142 cases per day, according to health officials.
The city hopes to forestall a potential spike in positive cases caused by an Omicron subvariant.
“Unless we act now, knowing that every previous wave of infections has been followed by a wave of hospital admissions and then a wave of deaths, it will be too late for many of our residents,” Bettigole said. Health inspectors are due to begin enforcing the mask requirement at city businesses on Monday.
Meanwhile, King III says this mandate is a step in the wrong direction and businesses in Philadelphia will take a hit.
“If you go across the road to Bucks or Delaware County, those regulations don’t apply,” King III said. “You don’t have to wear a mask at indoor gatherings. Philadelphia is the outlier within the state.”
The restaurant industry fought back against the renewed mandate, saying workers would bear the brunt of customer irritation over the new rules.
The state Supreme Court ruled in December that the governor’s government had no legal authority to require masks in Pennsylvania’s schools and daycares, citing the state legislature’s overturn of an emergency disaster declaration. The 6-0 ruling says state law gives health officials broad powers to protect public health but does not allow the department to “act as it pleases on all disease-related matters.”
CBS3’s Wakisha Bailey and Matt Petrillo contributed to this story.
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