COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A state representative wants to make sure that one thing that happened in 2020 never happens again – facemask requirements.

House Joint Resolution 4 would establish the constitutional right to not wear facemasks in government buildings, courts and places of “public accommodation,” including hospital waiting rooms and schools. Its sponsor, Rep. Scott Wiggam (R-Wayne County), told lawmakers Wednesday that mask mandates infringe on people’s liberty and body autonomy, and voters should decide whether such mandates should be allowed.

“This legislative body was unable to provide these protections for Ohioans who wanted to participate freely in commerce and educational activities without being forced to wear facial coverings, and now we have the opportunity to right this wrong,” Wiggam testified before the House Public Health Policy committee.

In addition to banning mandates in government buildings and courts, the resolution would ban any “place of public accommodation” from requiring patrons to wear facemasks. As defined in the amendment, places of public accommodation include lodging, restaurants, theaters and entertainment venues, stores, laundromats, banks, funeral parlors, public transit stations, museums, schools, universities, and gymnasiums. It also bans mask mandates in pharmacies, the offices of health care providers, senior citizen and child care centers, and publicly accessible portions of hospitals.

Under questioning, Wiggam said his “bottom line” is that nobody should have to wear something over their face that they do not want to. Democratic lawmakers on the committee questioned Wiggam’s logic, asking whether shoe and dress requirements to enter restaurants ought to be banned as well. 

Rep. Munira Abdullahi (D-Columbus) said the General Assembly should not “legislate based off of wants” but rather look to the available evidence and make decisions accordingly.

“You could argue that people have the right to do a lot of things that could be harmful,” Abdullahi said. “Our job is to legislate that they don’t do these things that could do harm to themselves and to people around them.”

But Wiggam, and several Republicans on the Public Health Policy committee, disagree that masks are effective against COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses. Wiggam said he plans to submit more than 170 articles that demonstrate the poor efficacy of facemasks to prevent the spread of disease – and the potential harms of mandates.

“This is the first time in a generation that we have gone through and required this type of masking, and I think that the destruction, or the deleterious effect, is much greater than what we may think is a positive effect,” Wiggam said.

One study that Wiggam mentioned was a systematic review by Cochrane, an international collaboration of medical professionals, researchers and health experts, that studied how well certain interventions reduced the spread of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. Wiggam claimed the review showed that wearing masks had no effect on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) said legislatures must ask whether mask mandates worked to reduce COVID-19 when considering the availability of such mandates in the future.

“The point is, the masks didn’t work,” Stewart said.

But that’s not exactly what the researchers in the Cochrane review concluded. 

After analyzing a dozen clustered randomized clinical trials, the researchers found that in community settings, surgical masks likely have little to no effect on the spread of COVID-19, and one study suggested that surgical masks are as effective as N-95 respirators in hospital settings. But the researchers cautioned that poor study design, self-contamination of masks and poor adherence to mask requirements across the studies make it difficult to draw conclusions on the available evidence, emphasizing that more research is needed.

“The use of face masks in the community setting represents one of the most pressing needs to address, given the polarised opinions around the world,” the researchers wrote.

Rep. Anita Somani (D-Dublin), who has practiced as an OBGYN for more than three decades, criticized the inclusion of hospital waiting rooms, senior citizen care centers and childcare centers in the bill – the places where those most at risk from infectious diseases congregate, she said. Regardless of the efficacy of masks in limiting the spread of COVID-19, she said it was imperative to have all tools available should another serious disease outbreak occur.

 “When you pass a bill like this, you are tying the hands of future public health policy,” Somani said.

The resolution’s first hearing came a week after the U.S. Senate voted to ban mask mandates on public transit as part of the appropriations package, an amendment proposed by Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio. The amendment, which Ohio’s Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown also voted for, would ban mask mandates on any form of federally funded transportation through Fiscal Year 2024. It mirrors legislation Vance introduced in September that would also apply to schools and universities.

HJR4, co-sponsored by 30 Republicans, would require approval from three-fifths of both chambers before making it on the ballot in November 2024.