Treasury warns Arizona it cannot use federal funds to undermine mask norms

Arizona mandates masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tucson
FILE PHOTO: A sign advertises free masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the downtown bus station in Tucson, Arizona, U.S., June 20, 2020. REUTERS/Cheney Orr

October 6, 2021

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told Arizona’s governor on Tuesday that his state could not use federal funds to pay for programs aimed at undermining face mask requirements in schools, and said Arizona could lose funding if it did not change course.

In a letter to Governor Douglas Ducey, Adeyemo raised concerns about two new Arizona state programs funded under the coronarivus relief “American Rescue Plan” which he said would “undermine evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.” The disease continues to pose an imminent threat, killing over 1,500 Americans every day in recent weeks, he said.

Adeyemo’s letter comes a month after the U.S. Department of Education opened civil rights investigations https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-education-dept-opens-investigations-5-states-regarding-bans-universal-masking-2021-08-30 to determine whether five states – Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah – that have banned schools from requiring masks are discriminating against students with disabilities.

One of the Arizona programs offers grants to school districts on condition they not require the use of face coverings during instructional hours. The second gives families a voucher of up to $7,000 per student to cover tuition or other educational costs at a new school that does not require face coverings if the student’s current school requires them.

Ducey announced the two programs in August after some Arizona school districts defied a ban on school mask mandates passed by the state’s Republican legislature this year.

Both programs tapped a $350 billion fund established under the American Rescue Plan to mitigate the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 emergency, which has killed over 700,000 people in the United States, Adeyemo said in his letter.

“A program or service that imposes conditions on participation or acceptance of the service that would undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 or discourage compliance with evidence-based solutions for stopping the spread of COVID-19 is not a permissible use of (such) funds,” he said.

Adeyemo asked Ducey to respond within 30 days on how Arizona planned to come into compliance with the federal requirements, warning that “failure to respond or remediate may result in administrative or other action.” Such action could include federal efforts to recoup the funds, a Treasury official said.

Arizona officials are reviewing the letter and will respond, said Ducey’s spokesperson C.J. Karamargin.

“While the Biden administration continues to focus on mandates, here in Arizona we trust families to make decisions around what’s best for their children,” he said, adding that the voucher program was giving families in need access to resources like tutoring, child care and transportation.

Florida, Texas and Arkansas have also banned mandatory masking orders in schools. The Education Department left those states and Arizona out of its inquiry because court orders or other actions have paused their enforcement, it said in a news release.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Mark Porter, Sonya Hepinstall and Gerry Doyle)