Pima County announced Tuesday it will keep its mask mandate in place despite Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order barring local jurisdictions from making COVID-19 safety mitigations mandatory.
Ducey’s March 25 executive order rescinded local communities’ rights to keep mask mandates in place while abolishing caps on the number of customers allowed in establishments for social distancing.
After the Pima County Attorney’s Office indicated the governor doesn’t have the authority to override the county’s public health guidelines, the county announced it would continue mandating mask-wearing.
The mandate passed by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 4 calls for everyone in the county over 5 years old to wear a mask with a few qualifying health exemptions.
The governor is not taking any action to curb the decisions of some cities and counties to ignore his directive that they scrap their mask mandates.
Gubernatorial spokesman C.J. Karamargin on Tuesday dismissed as “inconsequential” that several communities have decided to maintain their ordinances requiring people to mask up in certain situations. That includes not just in public buildings and transit, which Ducey has said is OK, but also in businesses and restaurants that the governor said are free to tell employees and customers they need no longer wear masks.
“They’ve never enforced the mask mandates,” he said of the local laws.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry acknowledged that neither the city nor the county has issued citations. But he said that doesn’t make them ineffective or irrelevant.
“What it is, basically, is a high degree of voluntary compliance,” Huckelberry said.
“If you rescind it, you send the message that it’s no longer necessary,” he continued. “Well, it is necessary, based on public-health standards and infection rates per 100,000 people.”
As statewide business guidelines switch from requirements to recommendations, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, says the county is holding its ground as the number of COVID-19 infections in the county has increased for the first time in 10 weeks.
According to the county Health Department, coronavirus cases have crept up from 463 the third week of March to 479 the fourth week.
The chief medical officer also stressed the increasing importance of mask-wearing with the emergence of more contagious COVID-19 variants.
“The same kinds of mitigation measures that allow us to prevent transmission for the normal, garden-variety of COVID are going to be the same ones that allow us to prevent transmission with these potentially more infectious, more transmissible variants,” he said.
Although the governor’s executive order prevents local jurisdictions from enforcing mask mandates, Garcia contends various Arizona statutes give counties the authority to regulate public health by adopting their own provisions. The exact legal arguments the county attorney provided are covered by attorney-client privilege.
However, the county said the arguments reflect those made in the lawsuit the county faced for its mandatory curfew imposed in December. The Pima County Superior Court ordered the county to stop enforcing the curfew.
While he acknowledged the legal arguments are similar to the court case that went against the county, Garcia said he believes the county stands “on solid ground” when it comes to continuing the mask mandate and is ready for any legal challenges.
“This has been an overreach on the part of the executive. It’s up to the Legislature, and not the governor, to decide what authorities the counties are granted,” he said. “Aside from vaccination, the best thing that we have in our pocket is mask usage. We’re going to exercise that tool in order to be able to protect the health and well-being of the citizens of this county.”
The enforcement process for ensuring mask usage in public areas remains the same. People violating the mask ordinance face a $50 fine while businesses face a $500 fine and the possible loss of their license to operate.
Garcia said the Health Department’s inspectors use a “three strikes and you’re out” process. The department will call business operators once it receives a complaint and warn them of the consequences of their continued violation. On the third warning, businesses face a fine and permit loss.
While the chief medical officer said no business has faced these consequences yet, the county Health Department intends to “use whatever enforcement capacity” it has to enforce mask-wearing.
Ducey’s executive order justified the loosening of restrictions based on increased vaccinations and declining case counts. For Pima County to ease restrictions, Garcia says the county needs to reach community immunity with about 75% of the population vaccinated.
Approximately 20% of Pima County residents are now fully vaccinated, according to Garcia.
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero took the same stance of continuing the city’s mask mandate on the day Ducey released his executive order.
“Gov. Ducey’s actions are premature and will jeopardize Arizona lives unnecessarily,” she said. “The vast majority of Arizonans are not fully vaccinated, and the threat of more contagious, lethal variants remains.”
While Garcia said “the end is in sight,” he maintains mitigation measures such as masking and social distancing are still needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“If we can just get folks to continue to adhere to these relatively easy measures for another two, three months, we will be able to have achieved that level of vaccination that really allows this community to take a deep breath,” he said. “We are not there yet, and we cannot pretend that the behaviors we’re engaged in in public don’t impact the health and well-being of others.”
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