House committee OKs bill letting businesses ignore mask mandates

covid-19 mask
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Businesses would be exempt from the face mask mandates that public health experts have repeatedly touted over the past year in the fight against COVID-19 under a bill approved by a legislative committee.

The House Commerce Committee on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 2770, which would bar the state, counties and cities from forcing businesses to enforce mask mandates on their premises. The passed on a party-line vote, with the committee’s six Republicans voted for it and the four Democratic members voting against it.

Cities and counties across the state implemented mask requirements last summer after Gov. Doug Ducey lifted a restriction on local mandates as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened. He has repeatedly resisted calls from some Democratic mayors and others to enact a statewide mandate, but Ducey has often noted that the overwhelming majority of Arizonans lived in areas with mandates. 

The state does require mask use in some businesses, including restaurants.

Though businesses would be free to enforce the wearing of masks, they would be allowed to ignore such mandates under the measure, even if Ducey did relent and enact a statewide requirement via executive order.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joseph Chaplik, a Scottsdale Republican, said his legislation would simply restore freedom and liberty.

“If you choose to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t want to and go into a place of business, we should not be making those business owners be law enforcement of a mandate,” Chaplik said.

The bill has broad GOP support: 21 of Chaplik’s 30 Republican colleagues co-sponsored the bill. In a press statement, Chaplik said he’s heard from many people who feel their “liberties are being stolen and being ordered to cover up their faces even when they are healthy,” and that business owners have been forced to become “mask police,” which has sometimes caused heated confrontations with customers.

Chaplik told the committee that he’s received hundreds of emails supporting his bill, which he said far outnumber the emails opposing it. He read comments from several of those supporters, who referred to mask mandates as “government overreach” and an “unscientific health mandate,” and said “countless studies” have shown masks to be ineffective in preventing the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

However, those statements are overwhelmingly contradicted by health officials across the country. Masks are effective primarily in preventing people with COVID from emitting droplets containing the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The CDC recommends face masks for all activities outside the home and recently began urging people to wear cloth masks over surgical masks. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has suggested that a nationwide mask mandate may be needed to combat the pandemic.

Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, has also touted the effectiveness of face masks, as has Ducey and numerous other public health officials and private health care providers in Arizona. Many public health experts credited local mask mandates with helping to curb the spike in COVID-19 cases over the summer in Arizona, which faced one of the worst outbreaks in the United States at the time.

Researchers at the CDC recently found that 59% of all COVID-19 cases are transmitted by asymptomatic carriers.

Several Democrats on the House Commerce Committee took umbrage with the bill. Rep. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, noted that two of his cousins died of the coronavirus, while Rep. Charlene Fernandez reminded the committee that her hometown of Yuma experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the state.

“We are wearing our masks. We are … trying to be safe. And I really resent that this bill is being put forward today,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez also told the committee that 640 people signed into the legislature’s public comment system as opposed to the bill, compared to 218 who signed in as supporters. 

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, who has a long background in public health, praised the mayors who enacted mask mandates last year.

“Masks save lives. And the vaccine will save lives. Social distancing saves lives,” she said.