Arizona House bills ban masks in schools, business shutdowns

Parents would have to give explicit permission for schools to be able to require their children to wear face masks under one of a series of bills approved by the Arizona House on Feb. 17 that target government rules imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The school mask proposal passed with no Democratic support, as did proposals that block government agencies from requiring masks to be worn on their property and repeal the power of local government officials to order business closures.

A proposal that requires hospitals to allow clergy to visit ill patients won overwhelming support.

Republicans have been incensed since early in the pandemic in mid-2020 by what they say is heavy-handed government rules that sought to slow the spread of COVID-19. The state has counted nearly 2 million cases and tallied more than 27,000 deaths.

Republican Rep. Leo Biasiucci of Lake Havasu City said the business closure orders that came early in the pandemic decimated small businesses while big-box stores like Walmart were able to remain open for business. His bill targets local governments, although many closure orders came from Gov. Doug Ducey.

"Just because we felt, or cities, towns whatever, government felt, that they couldn’t figure out how to allow customers to shop in their stores safely, but a Walmart could," Biasiucci said. "That never ever should have happened."

He said businesses can figure out how to operate, and customers can decide if they are safe.

Democrats said the proposals will hamstring government in the case of another surge or another unrelated pandemic.

"I believe that public health is a responsibility of government," Rep. Mitzi Epstein said. "I do know that during the pandemic it felt there was an overreach.... but this is overreach in the other direction."

All four bills now got to the Senate for consideration. They are among a host of bills targeting reactions to the pandemic and employers making their way through the Legislature.

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