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The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to reinstate a mask mandate as COVID-19 transmission remains high throughout the county.

County residents will be required to wear a mask at indoor public places when continuously maintaining a 6-foot distance from others isn’t possible, but there’s no clear enforcement of these requirements.

Supervisor Matt Heinz brought the resolution before the board and acting County Administrator Jan Lesher recommended its approval. Supervisors Steve Christy and Rex Scott voted against the measure.

“People don’t necessarily stop an individual to check on the seat belt, but we do know that having it be a law has gone considerably toward encouraging the use of seat belts,” Lesher said. “Our hope, again, is that this will encourage people to be masked during this very difficult time without the penalties.”

The mandate will remain in place until Feb. 28 pending COVID-19 case and hospitalization counts at that time.

As of Tuesday, the county’s transmission rate was 238 new cases per 100,000 of the population in the last seven days, according to the CDC, which considers transmission high when this number surpasses 100. The CDC recommends everyone in the county wears a mask in public indoor settings.

And as the first case of the highly transmissible omicron variant in Pima County was reported on Dec. 16, the state of the pandemic is expected to worsen. On Tuesday morning, the University of Arizona announced seven samples of the virus have tested positive for the omicron variant on its campus.

Also on Tuesday, the White House said it’s sending medical personnel to Arizona to help deal with the ongoing surge of cases and nursing shortages throughout the state. The aid includes 20 paramedics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help transfer patients to open beds, according to a news release from the White House.

The supervisors first adopted a countywide mask mandate in June 2020 and rescinded the mandate in May 2021 with the recommendation unvaccinated residents continue to wear a mask indoors.

With the mandate back in place, the county hasn’t specified plans to enforce it, but Heinz said it will give leverage to business owners enforcing the mandate on their premises.

“The idea is that this is a pro-business move to make sure that the businesses don’t have to have the clerk at the front desk be the enforcer, they can say, ‘Hey, the county’s requiring it, see what the sign says,’” Heinz said.

Scott disagreed the mandate is a pro-business measure and said while he encourages county residents to continue mask-wearing, the onus of enforcing the mandate will fall on business owners, not the county.

“I am not willing to tell you that you must wear masks because I know that many of you will choose to ignore or defy that mandate,” Scott said. “The people who will have to deal with your choices are not members of this board, nor do they work for county government. I am absolutely unwilling to ask those workers to deal with the consequences of any defiance or ignorance of a new mask mandate, so I will be sadly voting against this item.”

Christy, who has adamantly opposed mask mandates throughout the pandemic, called the motion pointless without an enforcement mechanism.

“Why can’t this just be optional, as maybe a health advisory from the health department as opposed to an official mandate that has no enforcement, no teeth?” he said. “I think it really takes away any kind of credibility when you pass a mandate, and there’s no enforcement.”

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said she’s “completely baffled as to why this has become such a polarizing issue.”

“I know that all of us have gone out into our communities and see less and less people wearing masks,” she said. “Imposing a mandate right now makes a lot of sense, and I’m hoping that the city will join us.”

The Tucson City Council was meeting later Tuesday but has yet to indicate it will consider imposing its own mask mandate. Mayor Regina Romero expressed support for the county’s decision in a tweet after the vote Tuesday, however.

“I stand in support of Pima County’s mask mandate. Public health measures such as these are an important tool to prevent additional strain on our hospital system,” she wrote. “Together we can look out for the health of our workers and their families, especially as the holidays approach.”

Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com