Health Advice



New state laws hamstring public health officials

Christine Vestal, on

Published in Health & Fitness

In May, after the CDC advised that mask wearing was no longer necessary for vaccinated people, many states and localities eliminated or relaxed their mask requirements.

But last week, the CDC shifted course, advising vaccinated people in high-transmission communities to wear masks in indoor public settings. It also recommended masks for vaccinated people with young children or immunocompromised members of their households. And it called for universal masking of teachers, staff members and students in schools.

In the meantime, new state laws and dozens of bills aim to strip state and local governments, including school districts, of the authority to reinstate mask requirements.

In Arkansas, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country and is seeing a surge in new COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated people this summer, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill in April that preempts local government mask mandates.

Last week, as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state jumped, Hutchinson declared a public health emergency and called a special session to revisit the ban on masks in public schools.

North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum rejected a similar a bill, arguing in his veto that to “strip future governors and their state health officers of any low-cost tool that might be used to save lives and livelihoods in a future pandemic or other emergency would be both irresponsible and an unnecessary risk to the future public health and well-being of North Dakota citizens.” But the Republican-led legislature voted to override his veto.

In May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law prohibiting local governments and schools from imposing their own mask mandates. Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a similar bill that prohibits universities, school boards and local education agencies from requiring individuals to wear a mask as a condition of attendance for in-person instruction, sports events, dormitories or anywhere else on campus.

Arizona enacted a law prohibiting mask mandates, and Oklahoma enacted a ban on mask requirements in schools.


In Ohio, a Republican lawmaker proposed a bill in July that would prevent public schools and universities from requiring students, staff or visitors to wear masks while in class, at school-sponsored sports or during extracurricular events.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May preventing local governments, including school districts, from requiring students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear masks after June 4. Republican South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a similar order.

For decades, public health officials have required vaccines for diseases such as polio, measles, mumps and rubella for children entering schools. Health care employers have required the same vaccines for workers, and many require an annual flu shot.

But Republican lawmakers and some governors want to make sure that similar requirements don’t apply to COVID-19 vaccinations in their states. So far, no COVID-19 vaccine has received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Laws banning the use of COVID-19 vaccine passports as official proof of vaccination for any purpose, including travel, education or services, have been enacted in 11 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas — according to data from the National Academy for State Health Policy, which has been tracking COVID-19-related bills and laws.

Five states — Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah — have enacted laws prohibiting businesses from requiring their workers to get COVID-19 vaccinations. And six states — Arkansas, Arizona, Ohio, Oklahoma Montana and Tennessee — have enacted laws banning schools and universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, according to the state health policy organization.

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