Federal officials intervene in Arizona's misuse of COVID funds

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The Treasury Department warned Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey about the state's use of COVID relief funding.

A top official in the U.S. Department of the Treasury on Monday sent a letter to Arizona's Republican Gov. Doug Ducey instructing his office to stop using federal pandemic relief funds for two recently established state educational grant programs that explicitly exclude schools with mask mandates.

"A program or service that imposes conditions on participation or acceptance of that service that would undermine the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 or discourage compliance with evidence-based solutions ... is not a permissible use of [pandemic relief] funds," Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the American Independent Foundation.

Adeyemo warned that Ducey must explain how the state will "remediate" the issues with the programs within 30 days or Arizona will face "administrative or other action."

The letter is just the latest example of the Biden administration utilizing executive powers to bolster COVID-19 protections, as Republican officials in states work to undermine pandemic mitigation measures. In recent weeks, federal agencies have taken steps to enforce public health protections for Americans in areas that include schools, hospitals, and the workplace.

C.J. Karamargin, Ducey's communications director, confirmed his office is "reviewing the letter and will respond." In a statement, Karamargin went on to argue, "Following the challenges during the 2020 school year, everyone's primary focus should be equipping families with the resources to get their kids caught up. That's exactly what this program does."

"It's baffling anyone would disagree with this approach," Karamargin added.

The two Arizona programs in question use money from Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, consisting of $350 billion in federal dollars appropriated by Congress in the American Rescue Plan to aid state and local governments' pandemic relief efforts, in distributing educational grants.

Arizona's Education Plus-Up Grant Program opens up $163 million in grants to state K-12 schools "not requiring the use of face coverings during instructional hours and on school property," going so far as to require schools to include a copy of their mask policy in their applications.

The Educational Recovery Benefit Program offers parents whose children's public schools require masks up to $7,000 per student in vouchers to assist with tuition and transportation to one that doesn't. The vouchers will "empower parents to exercise their choice when it comes to their child's education and COVID-19 mitigation strategies," Ducey said in announcing the program.

Arizona is one of eight states that bar schools from requiring face masks in the classroom, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations of universal mask-wearing to prevent community transmission.

The U.S. Department of Education has taken steps in recent days to support masking efforts in states that bar mandates, opening a civil rights investigation into five states to determine whether those policies discriminate against students with disabilities who are at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. The Education Department has also awarded several Florida school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate for funding withheld by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over those districts' mask mandates.

It's not just schools where the administration is stepping up executive action. In September, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing laws that prohibit workplace discrimination, filed its first COVID-related lawsuits against several employers, alleging they wrongfully discriminated against employees with disabilities.

And in its broadest action to date, President Joe Biden in early September announced a series of COVID-19 vaccine mandates covering all workplaces with more than 100 employees, most federal government workers and contractors, health care workers in settings that receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, and members of the armed forces.

Those efforts appear to be working. Large employers and hospitals that have implemented mandates have seen major jumps in the percentage of vaccinated employees, while initial reporting seems to indicate that fears of mandates leading to mass firings or resignations among unvaccinated workers were overblown.

"We've been patient," Biden said on Sept. 9 as he announced the new mandates, with a pointed message for those who remain unvaccinated: "But our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.