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Tucson to end COVID mask mandate, return soon to in-person City Council meetings

Tucson city leaders have started planning a return to in-person City Council meetings, and will end COVID-19 masking mandates in municipal buildings by next week.

The move comes after Pima County rolled back its mask requirement to a recommendation on Monday.

COVID cases have dropped here in recent weeks, and the Centers for Disease Control lowered their rating of community transmission in Pima County from “high” to “medium” on March 3. The previous “high” status meant that Pima County had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, and every county in Arizona had held that rate from late last summer to earlier this year.

The current infection rate in Pima County is 44 new cases per 100,000 people over the past week, according to the CDC, but the county had reached a rate more than three times the baseline for “high” during surges earlier in the winter. Arizona reported 6,549 cases over the past week and 382 deaths from the virus. Pima County reported 812 new cases and 40 new deaths over the past week.

Pima County administration changed their mask mandate for workers and visitors in county buildings to a “recommendation” on Monday following the decline in COVID cases. Masks will no longer be required in county buildings after Saturday, March 12.

Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega said on Wednesday that he intends to do the same for city facilities by March 14, which is the first work day after the end of the county’s mandate. His change would also make wearing a face covering a recommendation, he said.

The county’s latest public health advisory, issued by County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen, recommends that people continue to stay home if sick, get vaccinated and boosted if not already and to test after exposure to COVID. Cullen also advised masking for anyone 65 years or older, people who have COVID symptoms, or anyone indoors with someone at risk of getting very sick from the virus, including people with weak immune systems. The unvaccinated get more severely ill from COVID than people who have been fully vaccinated, health experts warn.

Ortega said he’s trying “to stay in lock-step with (county COVID policies) as best I can.” The city’s new recommendations will be defined “pretty closely to what the county has,” he said, and Tucson will continue to offer masks to the public at the entrances of their buildings.

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If the county does restore a requirement to wear masks, the city will do the same immediately, Ortega said. “I will not wait for a Council meeting to do that,” he said to Mayor Regina Romero at the Wednesday meeting. “I will just do that administratively, and I will inform you afterward because I do want to make sure we’re staying in lock-step (with the county).”

Masking on buses and other Sun Tran vehicles will stay in place for the foreseeable future, however, Ortega said. The CDC issued an order in January 2021 requiring masking on public transportation, but it revised that order late last month to no longer require masking on public school buses to “​​align with updated guidance that no longer recommends universal indoor mask wearing in K-12 schools and early education settings,” according to the CDC.

During Wednesday's study session, the City Council also discussed returning to in-person meetings. They would likely have a hybrid form, Ortega and City Clerk Suzanne Mesich told the members of the Council, with presenters and the public watching the meeting from a different room until called in. Romero suggested that the Council consider returning to the city chambers for the last meeting of March or the first meeting of April, but Mesich will first poll the other members before offering a date for stopping all-virtual meetings.

Most of the Council members supported resuming in-person meetings, and several said that they had already started having in-person meetings at their ward offices, including at Ward 2 in the East Side and Ward 6 in Midtown.

Councilman Steve Kozachik from Midtown raised the concern that with a hybrid meeting that puts people in a different room and leaves the Council alone in the chambers, there’s a loss of engagement. “It’s not really the ambiance we’re after,” Kozachik said, building on a point that East Side Councilman Paul Cunningham had made earlier.

“The intimacy and the engagement when a meeting is live is much more impactful,” Cunningham said. “If the University of Arizona can take 14,000 people allegedly with masks at a time, then I don’t understand how we can’t have a meeting in chambers.”

Councilman Richard Fimbres, from the South Side, noted that deaths are still going up in Pima County and that UA leadership, in anticipation of a spike in COVID cases, is asking students to be tested before returning from spring break, which started this week. Students in the Tucson and Sunnyside Unified School Districts are going on spring break next week. Fimbres asked that in-person meetings be delayed at least until April because of this.

City Council had met in their chambers for the first time since the pandemic in early December for the inauguration of Kevin Dahl, who was elected in the fall.

One concern of the mayor and city administration was making sure the technology was ready for in-person Council meetings. City staff has been testing technology like audio and video equipment in the chambers to prepare for resuming meetings there, Mesich said.

Cunningham also mentioned during the meeting and in previous meetings the reopening of recreation facilities in Tucson. Many of them have opened with limitations, especially for senior activities, over the past year. Cunningham wants them opened all the way along with expanded pool hours.

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Other signs came this week that COVID policies are easing. The TUSD Governing Board voted on Tuesday to return to in-person meetings on March 22 and allow the public in as well. They also voted to make masking optional in schools by March 28.

The Tucson Convention Center has also stopped offering free COVID vaccinations, which Tucson operated in cooperation with Pima County. A range of other free vaccination and testing clinics — both standing and mobile — are continuing and can still be found online along with a link for appointments.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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