Biden may claw back millions in Covid aid from Arizona over state’s mask policies

Biden may claw back millions in Covid aid from Arizona over state’s mask policies
The governor of Arizona has pushed back against mask and vaccine mandates

Federal officials are threatening to claw back billions in coronavirus aid from Arizona, accusing the state of promoting Covid education programmes that undermine efforts to stop the spread and penalise districts that require masks or shut down in-person schooling.

The Grand Canyon State has a number of programmes which discourage districts from following widely accepted public health measures. A $163m funding initiative for schools is closed to those that require mask coverings. Another programme offers parents up to $7,000 dollars for private school tuition after their child was exposed to Covid in an area that requires masks or quarantines. A third scheme, recently announced, provides private school vouchers to parents in areas where schools close for even a single day because of coronavirus.

On Friday, the Treasury Department warned the state it has 60 days to remove these provisions, or else the roughly $2bn in aid the state has already received in federal Covid aid could be at risk.

“By discouraging families and school districts from following this guidance, the conditions referenced above undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the agency said in a letter to Arizona, according to the Associated Press. “Accordingly, these school programs as currently structured are ineligible uses of (Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds).”

The federal government warned the state about such measures last year as well, and Arizona’s Republican administration is sticking with its policies once again.

“We think that this program is aboveboard,” Daniel Ruiz, chief of staff for governor Doug Ducey, told the AP on Friday. “We’re going to defend that program and any other future program that is designed to get kids caught back up and mitigate the learning loss.”

So far, Arizonans seem less enthused about these programmes than their representatives. As of last week, only 85 students have received vouchers under the post-exposure grant, collecting less than $600,000 of the $10m allocated to the programme.

Covid continues to rage in the state.

There were more than 20,000 cases in the state on Friday, a new record, nearly double the previous record from last January, and Covid inpatient numbers in hospitals are at their highest level in nearly a year as well.

“Nearly a third of our inpatient beds are now occupied by COVID or suspected COVID patients,” Dr Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, told KTAR. “Roughly 90% of those COVID patients are unvaccinated.”

Education officials have warned that school closures could be imminent.

“If we continue to see Omicron spread like it’s been spreading then you eventually will be facing the same things that restaurants and movie theaters and small businesses everywhere are going to be facing,” Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas told EdWeek. “If you don’t have enough healthy employees, you have to make some kind of change. And so that may be what they’re trying to get out in front of.”

Arizona ranks 28th in the nation in terms of the number of its residents fully vaccinated against Covid, according to the Mayo Clinic, and is in other conservative states, lawmakers have attempted to ban mask mandates.