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Tucson's new mask requirement could be superseded today by expected county-wide rules
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Tucson's new mask requirement could be superseded today by expected county-wide rules

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

Erika Munoz, owner of Seis Kitchen, and Erich Hernandez, a manager at the restaurant, stack food on a catering cart outside Carondelet St. Joseph's Hospital for hospital workers, on April 23, 2020. The donation was made in conjunction with A+C (Athletes/Artists+Causes) Foundation's “Project Frontline.”

Hours before the Pima County Board of Supervisors is likely to set the parameters of a countywide mask requirement, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero implemented one of her own within city limits.

The discussions and actions transpiring locally mirror those in towns, cities and counties across the state on Thursday in response to Gov. Doug Ducey’s lifting of restrictions Wednesday on municipalities to take their own efforts to curb the coronavirus spread as the state becomes a hot spot for new cases.

Before Ducey’s action Wednesday, Romero announced that she would move forward with the mask requirement. She updated her emergency proclamation to require Tucsonans ages 2 years and older to wear a mask in public where physical distancing is difficult or impossible.

The order, which mirrors much of what is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and goes into effect Saturday at 6 a.m., extends to public settings, including indoor spaces such as gyms, restaurants, grocery stores, bars and ride-share services.

Exceptions include those who are eating or drinking in restaurants, any person who can’t wear a mask because of a medical condition, and those who are exercising outdoors.

The order carries a civil penalty of a $50 fine or five hours of community service, although Romero stressed that the focus will be on education and self-enforcement, as opposed to citations from Tucson police.

“We’re not out there to get people, but if there is blatant disregard, like a business owner asking for a customer to please wear their mask, I can see a need to have our police be able to enforce it,” she said during a Thursday press conference. “We don’t want to get to that to space.”

Romero’s order may be short-lived, however, as the Pima County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss a mask ordinance that would extend throughout Pima County, including in cities and towns but not tribal areas.

County officials point to court rulings that affirm that since they operate the county Health Department, they are tasked with the authority to protect public health for all county residents. They also pointed to state law that allows them to “make regulations necessary for the public health and safety of the inhabitants.”

The recommendations for the board are being drafted by the county’s Road to Recovery subcommittee, which is made up of county, university and private-sector health officials and physicians. The subcommittee was created after Ducey lifted Arizona’s stay-at- home order in May.

“Our whole purpose of this is to look at scientific evidence and medical evidence and use it to create effective policies,” said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. “I recommend that the board approve the recommendations made by these medical professionals.”

Newly appointed Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen will present the recommendations to the board, along with evidence to support them.

When it comes to enforcement, Huckelberry said the initial focus would be on education for the public.

“If passed, the first part of this is education, and then the next step is acknowledgment that they need to wear a mask and giving everyone an opportunity to comply before further enforcement action is taken,” he said.

Huckelberry said further enforcement actions could include a variety of things from a citation to civil action in court.

Supervisor Ramon Valadez said he plans to support the recommendations and believes they will be an important step in protecting county citizens as the pandemic continues.

“It’s still being drafted, but what we’ve directed our attorney to draft is an ordinance under the emergency declaration,” he said. “Because we have the Health Department, our authority would include unincorporated and incorporated Pima County.”

The potential implementation of a countywide mask requirement has generated mixed responses from the mayors of local cities and towns.

Marana Mayor Ed Honea said he’s considering an appeal with the state Attorney General’s Office should the county move forward with the requirement, similar to what a pair of state legislators did when the county imposed requirements on restaurants to slow the virus’s spread.

He said he’s not “anti-mask” but that he would rather “give a certain amount of responsibility to people and kind of let them do their thing.” He said that he’s seen great response from people in Marana, including servers in restaurants, in adhering to mask recommendations.

“My philosophy on government is the government should be responsive to the people and not people responsive to the government,” he said. “This is not a communist state. People have to have a certain amount of culpability themselves.”

Oro Valley Mayor Joe Winfield said he believes a regional approach will be “most effective.” He said that he’s been seeing good compliance from his residents.

“What it really comes down to is people simply have to feel safe. The great majority of businesses recognize that and have responded appropriately to doing what they can to provide a safe environment for their customers,” Winfield said.

Asked if he would be in support of passing an Oro Valley mask requirement should the county not pass its own, he said, “We’ll cross the bridge if and when it comes.”

Romero said she considered waiting to see what the county did, but that “we need to act on this immediately.” She added that the order includes language that supports county efforts.

“I will happily work with Pima County and the public health department and Board of Supervisors to adjust our proclamation and move things around, work with them,” she said.

Asked if she considered discussing a mask requirement during an emergency City Council meeting, Romero said that the city charter grants her the power to do so without one. The city has called an emergency meeting for Friday at 5 p.m.

“I have the power given to me by the charter to make these calls,” she said. “I wanted to move immediately to let the community know that we’re moving in the direction of making this mandatory.”

Arizona has seen a record spike of new coronavirus cases in recent days, including a single-day high of 2,519 on Thursday, prompting the calls from local officials throughout the state to implement the mask requirement.

That has garnered the support of health-care workers, who have also seen a spike in hospitalizations to treat victims of the virus. They’re pushing local officials to create mask requirements.

In a prepared statement, Judy Rich, the president and CEO of TMC Healthcare, said the move isn’t a political position, but rather “a human-interest stance coming from the medical professionals on the front lines of this pandemic.”

“Recent studies have shown that the use of face coverings reduces transmission of the COVID-19 virus by at least 50%. We have seen firsthand that since the reopening of our state, too many of our community members are either not observing social distancing or ignoring the need to wear a face mask. This is resulting in our local hospitals having to deal with a devastating surge in cases and critical care. This will only get worse if we don’t act now,” Rich said.

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com and reporter Jasmine Demers at jdemers@tucson.com.

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