PHOENIX -- A first-term legislator convinced colleagues Wednesday to let businesses ignore mask mandates to stem the spread of COVID by arguing that they weren't needed decades ago to stop the spread of AIDS.
On a 31-28 party-line vote, the House approved legislation that says business owners need not enforce any state, city, town or county requirement for people to wear a mask.
Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, said it would give businesses the choice of whether to enforce the mandates that many communities already have adopted. And he said that consumers then would have the option of deciding if they want to do business there.
"It's about the individual rights of these business owners as Americans,'' Chaplik argued.
The vote came over the objections of several lawmakers who said the measure ignores evidence of how masks, properly worn, help curb the spread of the disease that has so far killed half a million Americans, including more than 16,000 in Arizona. Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, who is a physician, said masks are part of the "very basic, important tools,'' along with hand washing and social distancing, to curb the spread.
Chaplik, however, argued that the mandates are an overreaction and that society has managed to survive other viral outbreaks without masks.
For example, he cited HIV "that was going to wipe our global destruction of human bodies with AIDS.''
"We heard about that in the 80s,'' Chaplik said. "Yet no masks were required.''
Medical consensus is that HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- is spread through exchange of bodily fluids, normally sexual transmission or sores from open wounds. It also can be spread through sharing infected needles.
Chaplik went on to tell colleagues to look at what's happening elsewhere to disprove the claims that masks help prevent the spread of the virus.
"Nebraska never had a mask mandate,'' he said. He said the same is true in places like Mississippi and Georgia.
"I would think that based on these arguments these states would have dead people piled up all over their state because no one else would be living because no one has masks on,'' Chaplik continued.
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, expressed similar beliefs. Roberts said he's heard a figure that something like 90% of the state is covered by some local mask mandate.
"If they work, how are people still catching COVID?'' he asked.
Other Republicans who voted for the bill did not openly challenge the effectiveness of masks, properly worn, in preventing the spread of disease. Instead, they said the legislation is a matter of individual rights.
"It allows adults to be adults,'' said Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria.
Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, echoed that sentiment.
"The bill doesn't say 'masks don't work,' '' he said. "The bill gives business owners ... the right to make a decision.''
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, had a slightly different take.
"This bill is simply about not making 16-year-old waiters and waitresses police officers enforcing a criminal mask statute,'' he said.
Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, said Chaplik is wrong in arguing that mask mandates are an example of government overreach.
"Mask mandates are a textbook example of the government ensuring one of its fundamental purposes, which is guarding the public health and safety,'' Rodriguez said. He said allowing people to ignore such an order sends a bad message.
"What you are essentially saying is that individual business owner has the right to place every other member of his community at risk of infection,'' Rodriguez said. "It won't matter if other businesses insist on a mask if two or three or even one seller decides not to use a mask because you nullify the effect of the unified effort.
But Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said the purpose of the bill is simple.
"It's driven to the free-market and property rights issue given your constitutional rights to pursue your dreams in this country and in this state,'' he said.
Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, who owns the jewelry store with the family name, told colleagues this is a difficult decision.
She said her employees wear masks. Despite that, some did get sick, forcing the closure of the store.
"I have had friends die of COVID,'' Osborne said. And she said that, as a member of the board of the local hospital, she has seen the effects of the disease.
Osborne also said there are other mandates on business that are accepted, like having sprinklers and fire extinguishers. But Osborne, who provided the crucial -- and required -- 31st vote for the measure, said she had to side with her colleagues.
"I'm no communist,'' she said.
The measure now goes to the Senate.