PHOENIX — Calling it a matter of personal freedom, Republican state senators voted Monday to allow themselves to take off their masks.
“The last I remember, America was about the land of the free and allowing people to make decisions for themselves,” said Majority Leader Rick Gray of Sun City in voting for the change.
But Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said the new rules, approved on a party-line vote in the GOP-led chamber, should not be seen as a license for people to be irresponsible.
In fact, the policy still says that anyone in the Senate building is “encouraged” to wear facial protection.
That did little to satisfy the 14 Senate Democrats, all of whom were in opposition. Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, called the move premature, pointing out that fewer than one out of every five Arizonans is fully inoculated against COVID-19.
An hour later, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, scrapped that chamber’s face mask policy.
There, Democrats had no chance to object: Bowers is entitled to enact any policies he wants dealing with health regulations in that chamber.
The moves come just days after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey rescinded any remaining requirements for businesses to ensure that staff and customers are socially distanced or must wear masks.
That did not impress several Democratic senators. “The medical doctors say we shouldn’t be letting our guard down to this virus,” said Sally Ann Gonzales of Tucson.
“We are supposed to lead here,” added fellow Tucsonan Kirsten Engel. “We’re supposed to be models. And by us taking away the mask requirement which made perfect sense, without any kind of justification on public health grounds, I have to say it’s just irresponsible.”
But Republican Sen. Nancy Barto of Phoenix called it “people doing what’s right for them.”
Fann acknowledged arguments that the move is premature. Aside from new strains of the virus appearing, there are younger Senate staffers who have not yet had the chance to get inoculated.
“But there’s a lot of members that think it was a long time coming, too,” she said.
Anyway, she noted, it’s not like the new policy requires everyone to remove a mask.
In fact, lawmakers who are uncomfortable being on the floor or in committee with unmasked colleagues can continue to attend hearings online. And the building remains closed to virtually all visitors, will all testimony conducted through Zoom meetings.
“I realize we’re not out of the woods yet,” Fann said. “But I’ve asked everybody to be totally respectful. If you are not wearing a mask, please keep your distance from those who are wearing a mask and be respectful of them.”
Fann is doing something else, too: Switching seats. Right now in the 30-member chamber, all the Democrats sit on the east side of the floor with the Republicans on the west side, divided by an aisle.
But given there are more Republicans than Democrats, that leaves Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, deep in what could be considered Democratic territory.
So Fann, who has an assigned seat on the GOP side of the room but who normally sits at the front of the chamber, is moving Kerr to her regular seat on the floor. That essentially leaves the Democrats to declare their side of the chamber as mask mandatory.
And Fann said she will wear a mask if she’s on the floor amid the Democrats.
Bowers said his decision to eliminate the mask mandate in the House is based on “the state’s robust rollout of vaccination resources and the governor’s decision to rescind many of the COVID-19 restrictions that went into place last year.”
But an aide to Bowers said the clear acrylic barriers between the desks of representatives on the House floor will remain unless and until lawmakers on each side of the dividers agree to removal. There are no such barriers in the Senate, where there is more distance between desks.