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Tucson City Council will return to in-person meetings as COVID recedes

The Tucson City Council will meet in person for the first time in two years on April 5.

The city also removed their mask mandate, which ended at the beginning of last week, by downgrading it to a recommendation to wear face-coverings in city buildings. The same move has been made in the classroom setting by the Tucson Unified School District, whose mask mandate ends at the beginning of next week.

The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board will hold their first in-person meeting Tuesday.

Last week, the Pima County Board of Supervisors also met in person for the first time since the pandemic. The county's requirement to wear masks in local government buildings was also lowered to a recommendation.

The University of Arizona ended their mask mandate on Monday.

City Council members have said that they want the public to be able to speak to them face-to-face the way they were able to in public comment periods before the pandemic. Two weeks ago, East Side Councilman Paul Cunningham said “the intimacy and the engagement when a meeting is live is much more impactful.”

Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik said a hybrid setting with the public in another room isn’t “really the ambiance we’re after.”

After taking a consensus from the Council, the City Clerk’s Office set the date for the first in-person meeting in April, and decided to allow both the public and presenters to attend in the Council chamber.

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Presenters will still be able to deliver presentations remotely, however. City Manager Mike Ortega said he’s “making every effort” to have the technology ready for remote presentations, with some planned for April 5.

Ortega has also said that he wants the city to “stay in lock-step” with Pima County COVID policies, meaning that if COVID cases rise again and the county returns to remote meetings, the city will follow suit. The same applies to reissuing mask mandates, he said, and UA officials have said they'll renew masking if cases rise.

The Centers for Disease Control lowered their rating of community COVID 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.

As cases nationwide have dropped, the CDC has introduced a new rating scale based on the total number of new cases over the previous week — dropping the per 100,000 people calculation.

Pima County saw 816 new COVID cases last week, with another 59 deaths from the virus. The county case rate per 100,000 people is 78 new cases over a seven-day period. The positivity is almost 4 percent, less than a third of what it was during the Omicron peak in the winter. The total vaccination rate of the county is 68 percent.

The 78 new cases per 100,000 people infection rate in Pima County is higher than it was two weeks ago, when it was 44 new cases per 100,000 people. Still, it’s much lower than the rate the county had reached during winter surges, which were more than three times the baseline for “high.”

Arizona reported 5,153 new COVID infections last week. There were 457 additional deaths statewide from the virus over the same time period.

The city is rolling back vaccinations as they stopped offering free vaccines at the Tucson Convention Center. Many of the standing and mobile free COVID testing centers in Pima County are still operating, however, and can still be found online.

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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