Speaker Alec Garnett, Jan. 14, 2022

Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, advocates against amendments offered by Republicans over his authority on public health regulations in the House. Screenshot courtesy Colorado Channel. 

A plan to require masks in committee hearings drew the first fight between Democrats and Republicans in the state House Friday.

House Resolution 1003 would allow the Democratic leader of the House to create regulations to protect vulnerable members of the House during a public health emergency.

Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said all the resolution would do is to cover committee space of the House, to ensure people can socially distance and wear masks.

"It keeps us up to date where we were last year, no more than that," he said.

The need for the resolution stems from Joint Rule 44, which concerns declaration of public health emergency and which guided the General Assembly until its use was ended last year.

But House Republicans, most of whom don't wear masks anywhere in the Capitol, fought back. That included invoking information that has been thoroughly debunked. 

Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose, has been one of the most ardent advocates for debunked medical information, both in 2021 and 2022. She's the sponsor of a 2022 bill to allow off-label use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, which both the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn shouldn't be used to either treat or prevent COVID and which they say could be dangerous.

Luck ran a similar bill in 2021 that died in its first committee hearing. The 2022 version is unlikely to fare any better.

The mask topic has divided communities against each other, she told the House.

"My community objects to the idea of being told what medical treatments to pursue. This isn't a question about keeping other people safe," and people who decide not to wear a mask aren't choosing to put others at risk, she said. "They're looking at a different set of facts and arguments" and deciding based on those facts.

Luck then cited debunked information about how masks negatively impact the body's oxygen intake. That's been debunked by the FDA

Luck claimed her constituents won't be comfortable testifying at the Capitol if they have to wear masks and would have to testify remotely, which she called a "diminished" form of testimony. She then suggested it would be discrimination if the House passed the rule. 

Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat and a registered nurse, has been on the front lines of the pandemic. That includes a month he spent working in the Cook County Jail last year to help with what was then the nation's worst COVID outbreak. He sees COVID patients every day, including last week when his emergency room had no beds and he had to take patients coming in by ambulance to the waiting room.

"The science is clear. Masks help stop the spread of this virus," Mullica said.

He also noted that in the years before COVID, when someone went into surgery, every single medical professional wore a mask.

"We can't say we're changing things ... we've been using masks to help combat the spread of disease for years," he said, calling the assertions that masks are dangerous "absurd and false." 

Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said the discussion is about how to operate the House.

He commended Garnett for the discussions they've had on how to get back to normal.

"Nothing in this [rule] has anything to do with a member's ability to represent their constituents," or prohibit a member from coming to the House to do their work.

"We desperately want to get to a baseline of normal, where people can redress their government," McKean added, saying he didn't want to do it by rule but appeared to acknowledge that's where it was headed.

"This has become political," said Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, R-Falcon.

He submitted three amendments. The first said the speaker's authority "shall not include the authority to require face coverings, vaccines or vaccine passports." The second omitted masks. 

Geitner quoted Gov. jared Polis several times. The first was when Polis told Colorado Public Radio in December that the state shouldn't tell people what to wear, and in the same interview, when the governor said the emergency is over.

Garnett, in urging a "no" vote, said there was no need for the amendments.

Geitner tried again, with an amendment that limited the authority to just the 2022 session given that the resolution was open-ended. Garnett, however, said the rule is limited to the current health emergency. He also pledged to continue discussions with McKean on the issue.

The amendments failed along party lines. The resolution passed along the same party lines.

The votes also signaled the first effort to put lawmakers on the record in the 2022 session, this time on mask mandates. Garnett asked for, but never got, voice votes on the amendments or the resolution itself, since Republicans asked for recorded votes for everything.

There were some unexpected votes along the way. Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, voted in favor of Geitner's first amendment. Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, voted against Geitner's second amendment. Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, voted against the resolution. 

Chalk that up to first vote errors, though. McCluskie said she meant to vote in favor of the resolution.

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