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Pima County approves mask-wearing ordinance, but without enforcement

Pima County approves mask-wearing ordinance, but without enforcement

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series

A mask-wearing requirement to help quell the spread of the coronavirus was approved Friday by Pima County Supervisors, superseding some of the requirements Tucson Mayor Regina Romero instituted in a similar order a day earlier.

The two main differences in the county’s ordinance compared with Romero’s plan:

  • Eliminating the possibility of a civil or criminal penalty for not wearing a mask.
  • Raising the minimum age for a person needing to wear a mask in public to 5 years old, up from the city’s requirement for children as young as 2.

Supervisors cited Arizona’s spike in coronavirus infections, especially among people in an age group previously reporting little to no cases, for moving quickly to institute mask rules. The resolution covers all of Pima County, including incorporated areas like Tucson, Marana and Oro Valley.

Tribal lands in Pima County are not included.

The county made its mask-wearing requirements immediate. Romero’s citywide ordinance was set to take effect Saturday at 6 a.m.

During the supervisors emergency meeting Friday afternoon, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry cited data showing more than 800 infections for the month of June for people ages 20 to 44.

During the county’s Road to Recovery subcommittee meeting earlier in the day, Pima County’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia said that almost all of the new case growth has been with patients in that age group, most of which occurred after the May 11 lifting of Arizona’s stay-home order.

The subcommittee, which was formed after the order was lifted, is made up of county, university and private-sector health officials and physicians.

Also concerning, Garcia said, is the rapid increase in confirmed cases in people in the 0-19 age group.

The week after Memorial Day, Pima County saw more than 100 new cases of coronavirus in the 0-19 age group.

Prior to the lifting of the order, the highest number of cases reported in a single week for people ages 0-19 was fewer than 25, according to data provided by the county.

“The infection rate has never been higher,” Huckelberry said during the Friday afternoon board meeting. This week, there have already been 1,130 cases, with more to be added to the weekly total.

Widespread use of masks can reduce the risk of transmission by 15% to 45%, Huckelberry said.

The county resolution says all people over the age of 5 are required to wear face coverings when they’re in public and can’t easily maintain a continuous distance of at least 6 feet from other people.

There are 11 exemptions to the resolution, including people who can’t tolerate wearing a mask due to medical reasons; those who are hearing impaired or communicating with a person who is hearing impaired; and people who are eating or drinking in a restaurant.

People will not be required to show documentation that they can’t wear a mask for medical reasons.

Exemptions are also extended to people who are swimming, incarcerated, engaging in outdoor activities, at home with others and on-duty law enforcement officers for whom wearing the face covering would create a risk.

For activities not on the list, a person can seek an exemption on a case-by-case basis from the Pima County chief medical examiner and the director of the Pima County Health Department.

General descriptions of the granted exemptions will be posted on the county’s website without identifying who made the request.

Businesses will be required to provide masks to employees and can refuse entry to anyone not wearing a mask. Enforcement will focus on education surrounding best practices.

Supervisors approved the similar ordinance by a vote of 3-2. Supervisors Ally Miller and Steve Christy voted against the resolution.

A handful of speakers addressed the supervisors, most asking for exemptions that were already written into the ordinance, either for exercise or medical issues.

Julie Strange, vice president of community benefit for TMC Healthcare, implored the supervisors on behalf of health-care workers to pass the mask requirement.

Strange said she felt a little emotional to be at the meeting, as the last time she was there was March 9.

At the March 9 meeting, Strange wasn’t wearing a mask, wasn’t carrying hand sanitizer in her purse and didn’t know she needed to stock up on toilet paper, she said, noting that the meeting was led by chairman Richard Elías, who died March 28.

“So much has changed since that day,” Strange said. “Masks can help us navigate this. It can reduce the burden on hospitals.”

Masks are both pro-health and pro-businesses, as they allow them to continue to operate, she said.

With TMC’s COVID-19 dedicated ICU beds at capacity since the beginning of the week, Strange said she’s seen the toll the virus is taking on hospital workers.

Miller expressed concern with the resolution, saying she didn’t think it would make much of a difference because there’s too much uncertainty surrounding the virus.

“We can’t expect people to be perfect, but we also need to understand that we don’t know a lot,” Miller said.

Also concerning was the idea that people could incur civil or criminal penalties for violating the resolution, Miller said. Fellow Supervisor Sharon Bronson echoed her concerns later in the meeting.

The resolution initially said education would be the first course of action, but that civil and criminal penalties are left open.

Huckelberry said it’s a public health ordinance and the Health Department will be the primary enforcement agency, but he said he would be happy to add a sentence saying the county will not take any enforcement action through law enforcement or the courts without authority of the board.

The change, along with raising the age of the mask requirement, were added during the meeting.

Miller, along with Bronson, both said they’d heard from parents who believed it would be exceedingly difficult to get 2- and 3-year-olds to wear masks, with Bronson asking how many mothers were consulted when writing the ordinance.

The subcommittee’s recommendation for masks for children as young as 2 was in line with CDC guidelines, Garcia told the supervisors, adding that he understands it may be difficult or not feasible for parents to get young children to tolerate a mask.

The idea, Garcia said, is to get between 50% to 80% of the population wearing masks, which will result in a sizable decrease in transmission.

“Lives are at stake. This isn’t a Republican issue, it isn’t a Democratic issue,” Bronson said shortly before the vote. “It’s about saving lives.”

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

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