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Arizona House committee moves to repeal mask mandates amid declining COVID numbers

An Arizona House committee voted Wednesday to advance legislation that would ban school districts from imposing mask mandates on children amid similar actions across the country and a declining number of COVID-19 cases.

House Bill 2616 comes after officials in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon and Virginia passed legislation or signaled efforts to roll back mandates in the coming weeks. 

COVID-19 has declined in the state from a pandemic high of 27,681 cases on Jan. 22 to 5,402 on Wednesday. Reported deaths have also dropped to 34 from a high of 335 on Jan. 12.

Republicans on the House Government & Ethics Committee pointed to reports that cloth masks are ineffective, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention findings.

“The CDC has said that, no, cloth masks and regular masks, they don't do anything,” said Representative Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, to the committee. “They do absolutely nothing in terms of blocking transmission of the disease, slowing the spread, stopping the spread. So, the reality is that the science is on the side that kids should not be forced to wear masks. This is not a political argument. This is an actual medical science argument. There's countless studies to support this.”

This past Friday, the CDC published a study indicating that cloth masks effectively lowered COVID-19 transmission to a tone of 56%. Surgical masks were 66% effective, and N-95 masks were the most effective at 83%. While cloth masks are less effective, it is still considered a worthwhile preventative measure by the organization.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Reuters on Tuesday that it's too soon to drop mandates in schools and public places.

“Now is not the moment,” Walensky said. “Right now our CDC guidance has not changed ... We continue to endorse universal masking in schools.”

Democrats on the committee saw the bill as an unneeded statement as opposed to an essential action.

Representative Sarah Liguori, D-Phoenix, recognized the science as developing and cautioned against passing the bill.

“It's fantasy to think that we as legislators know more than the experts who have trained their entire lives in these fields and have studied the science and data on this day in and day out for over the past two years,” Liguori told the committee. “So, we can't sit up here and pick and choose the science we follow based on how it aligns with the narrative that we want to buy into politically or otherwise. School districts do already have opt-out policies. The follow-up question we keep asking is but do they have opt-out policies? Which they do. So, therefore, I don't see a need for this bill. As it stands, I vote no.”

Despite the opt-out policies, Republicans saw it fit to end the mask mandates favoring parental choice, citing psychological and developmental indications that children could be adversely affected from two years of mask-wearing.

“CNN had a health pundit on just, I think, two days ago that was talking about how it’s actually less healthy for kids to have masks because of the behavioral issues, because of the developmental issues that occur,” Hoffman said. “The lack of being able to see facial expressions. That there is no scientific evidence for kids to be wearing masks, especially young kids. You shouldn't be putting mandating masks on kids because it doesn't work. One, it's not needed, two and three; it’s actually counterproductive in terms of children's health. So, I don't understand why there's any opposition to this bill.”

The bill, sponsored by Representative Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, passed the Republican-majority committee 7-6 along party lines.

The Rules Committee will consider the bill before a final House read. From there, it may head to the Senate for review.

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