PHOENIX (AP) — The Republican-controlled Arizona Senate voted Monday to rescind its mandatory mask policy and the House speaker made the same move on his own authority.
The Senate vote on the rules designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus got no support from minority Democrats. All 16 Republicans voted for the rule change. Face masks are now optional, and members continue to have the option of voting from their offices.
The move comes just days after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey blocked cities and counties from continuing to enforce mask requirements. He never issued a statewide mask order but amid a summer surge of virus cases allowed local governments to issue mandates. The mayors of Tucson and Flagstaff have refused to revoke their mask mandates, and they can still be enforced in government buildings and are required in schools.
Democrats pleaded with GOP members to vote against the rule change, with Sen. Lela Alston of Phoenix, a lung cancer survivor, asking them to do so for her and other at-risk members and staff.
“I am probably the most vulnerable member of this body — maybe not the only one, but one that could have really, really bad consequences if I were to get the virus,” Alston said. “I implore you to please, keep the masks on, keep us all safe. If I were to get this virus it would probably be a death sentence.”
Democrats noted that the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and President Joe Biden warned the nation Monday that too many Americans were declaring victory against the virus too quickly and mask mandates and other restriction should be maintined or restored to prevent a “fourth surge” of the virus.
Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat representing parts of Glendale, said the minority community he represents has been particularly hard hit by the virus and wearing a mask is a simple thing that can lower transmission rates.
“Wearing a mask is something so simple that even a 4-year-old can do it,” Quezada said. “And the adults are the ones throwing temper tantrums about this? If children can do it, we should be able to do it too."
Republican Sen. Rick Gray of Sun City took umbrage, saying no one was throwing a tantrum.
“This is an option and a choice that we have in the Senate, and the last I remember America was about the land of the free and allowing people to make decisions for themselves,” Gray said. “If people have concerns they can leave their masks on and should leave their masks on.”
Senate President Karen Fann said the new rule only rescinds the mask mandate. She also promised to reveal “an idea up her sleeve” Tuesday that may help Democrats feel better. Her comment came after she called up the only Republican senator who sits on the Democrats' side of the chamber, which has 15 desks on each side of a center aisle.
GOP House Speaker Rusty Bowers can change the rules on his own, and sent a revised policy to members and staff after the House finished its afternoon floor session Monday. Masks are now optional on the floor, but will be required in some offices and other areas.
Seven of 90 lawmakers have disclosed COVID-19 infections, with one senator infected this year.
The Arizona Department of Health Services on Monday reported 604 new virus cases and no new deaths. That brings the state’s pandemic total to 840,492 cases. The number of known COVID-19 related deaths remains 16,918.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
According to the state’s coronavirus dashboard, more than 3 million vaccine doses have been administered to Arizonans with more than 1 million residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, health officials said the number of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide decreased to 549 on Sunday — the lowest number since Oct. 3.
The number of ICU beds used by coronavirus patients fell to 169.
Ducey cited rising vaccination rates and the opening of vaccine appointments to all adults, as well as a declining number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, for his decision on Thursday to ban local government mask mandates. His decision was welcomed by business interests and Republican officials, and condemned by public health experts and Democrats.
Ducey encouraged the continued use of masks, particularly among groups of unvaccinated people. His latest executive order allows businesses to enforce mask mandates and distancing requirements if they want, but cities, towns and counties must lift theirs.
Associated Press reporter Terry Tang contributed.