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Ducey lifts COVID restrictions, opening Arizona bars & again blocking local mask mandates

Coronavirus measures 'transition to recommendations' in state; Tucson plans to continue face-covering order

Bars in Arizona will no longer have to operate under COVID-19 restrictions, said Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who also ordered Thursday that cities and counties can no longer mandate face-covering be worn in public — a move called "irresponsible, unethical and unprecedented" by the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors and "premature" and "reckless" by the mayor of Tucson.

Tucson officials plan to continue the city's mask mandate, despite Ducey's order, saying they have "clear legal authority" to do so.

Measures to stem the coronavirus pandemic will "transition from requirements to recommendations" under the governor's order, issued Thursday morning and effective immediately.

Businesses are "encouraged to take actions" recommended by the CDC, OSHA and other agencies to limit the spread of the virus, Ducey said, but will no longer be required to do so by the state or local governments.

Arizona businesses "still maintain the right to institute and enforce policies to mitigate against COVID-19 spread including the use of face coverings and physical distancing, and retain the right to refuse service to those who do not comply," Ducey ordered.

Masks are still required in all K-12 schools, said Kathy Hoffman, the elected state schools chief. "Masking is one of the top mitigation strategies for safe in-person learning as recommended by the CDC," she said.

Local officials were again scrambling to react to a move by Ducey that was not coordinated with local health authorities. The county's chief medical officer called the lifting of public health requirements "way too early" and said the move will "risk more illness and death," and Supervisor Matt Heinz said the governor is "playing political games with the lives of all Arizonans."

"The governor appears to have declared the pandemic over while still retaining his emergency powers to prevent local jurisdictions from protecting the public from a deadly infectious disease," said Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors. "We've seen this before. He imposed a shutdown order too late in 2020, then lifted it too early and we had the summer spike in infections. He's making the same mistake and the tragedy of that is more people will needlessly get sick and may die by his reckless action."

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Ducey's order allows cities, towns and counties to set rules, including requiring masks, in government facilities. But it reinstates a block on local jurisdictions from mandating masks be worn in public, and also bars cities, towns and counties from taking any other local measures to stem the spread of the virus that go any further than Ducey's statewide recommendations.

"As we've said all along, distribution of the vaccine is our best path to getting back to normal, and I want to thank the millions of Arizonans who have rolled up their sleeves to make the distribution and uptake so successful," Ducey said in a press release. "In Arizona, we never did a shutdown, so it's impossible to have a grand reopening. Instead, we are continuing to take reasonable, safe and sensible steps."

County and city officials took a different view, with Mayor Regina Romero saying that Tucson will continue its city mandate that people wear masks in public.

"Gov. Ducey's actions are premature and will jeopardize Arizona lives unnecessarily," Romero said Thursday afternoon. "The vast majority of Arizonans are not fully vaccinated and the threat of more contagious, lethal variants remains."

"Removing local mask requirements is not linked to spurring our economy, as the governor suggests," she said. "On the contrary, his actions could exacerbate community transmission, prolonging the pandemic and delaying a full and permanent re-opening of our economy."

City Attorney Mike Rankin "advised me that we have clear local authority to continue implementing our city mask mandate," the Democratic mayor said. "I have no intention of removing our local mask wearing requirement. Last summer, I announced that we would proceed with implementing a local mask mandate before the governor untied our hands precisely because we know we have the legal authority. Here in Tucson, we will continue to follow the science and advice of our public health experts."

City Councilman Steve Kozachik said Ducey's order is "irresponsible and runs counter to rational public health guidance" particularly "with the emergence of the U.K. strain in our community."

'Only going to make things worse'

Ducey's move "is only going to make things worse," said Bronson. "This is going to make it more difficult to get to herd immunity, and going to ensure that our economic recovery is not coming soon."

"Arizona will again see a rise in COVID cases and deaths" if people stop wearing masks in public and crowd into bars, Bronson told TucsonSentinel.com on Thursday morning.

Ducey's move is "irresponsible, unethical and unprecedented," she told the Sentinel in a phone interview. "Local jurisdictions are the ones on the ground that understand the challenges. We should be the ones to make those decisions, not the state government. Local control matters in these instances."

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Ducey's office cited the declining number of new reported infections and the hospitalizations decreasing to the lowest levels since the second wave of COVID hit Arizona, along with the number of vaccinations that have been administered.

Arizona has endured 16,874 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and on Thursday, the state reported 32 additional deaths from the disease, following 44 deaths added to the year-long toll on Wednesday. There have been nearly 838,000 diagnosed cases in the state, and during the height of the pandemic, Arizona had one of the worst rates of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the world — with nearly 122 cases per 100,000 residents.

Across the state, 138 new reported infections were added to the count on Thursday by the Arizona Department of Health Services, with 47 new diagnosed infections in Pima County.

Pima County has reported 2,339 deaths from COVID-19, and more than 112,000 cases. On Thursday, the county reported one death, following four new deaths that were added to the total tally on Wednesday.

Nationwide, the U.S. has suffered more than 29.7 million cases, and 541,289 people have died from the virus.

'Way too early' - County medical officer

"While the number of people vaccinated is slowly increasing, we only have about 174,000 people fully vaccinated in Pima County and only about 273,000 people have had at least one dose," said Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, in a news release Thursday afternoon. "We need to be between 700,000 and 800,000 fully vaccinated to have protection from the spread of the virus and the possibility of ending this pandemic. This is way too early to be easing mitigation measures. I fear this is going to set us back on the progress we've made and risk more illness and death."

The governor said Thursday that "the measures put in place last summer allowed Arizona to fight back COVID-19. I want to thank the local leaders who supported these efforts with their own measures, and the businesses who implemented them. Today, we are in a different spot, and we are also a lot smarter. I'm confident Arizona's businesses and citizens will continue to practice the fundamentals and act responsibly as we gradually get back to normal."

In March, more than 1,400 people in Pima County became infected with COVID-19, with at 44 dying from the virus, county officials said. As of Wednesday, there were 97 people hospitalized in the area with COVID-19; 29 of them were in the ICU.

"Those numbers are higher than when the governor eased COVID-19 restrictions in May 2020 after a brief 'Stay At Home' order," county officials aid. "He then had to strengthen restrictions in July as infections and deaths rose."

"COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll on the lives and livelihoods of all Arizonans. With the state's robust rollout of vaccination resources beginning in December, and recent expansion of eligibility to all residents above the age of 16, the governor has made the right and responsible decision to continue moving Arizona forward and ensure that our economy and our people will again thrive," state House Speaker Rusty Bowers said in the press release distributed by Ducey's office.

"Restaurants across Arizona have done an incredible job at implementing mitigation measures, protecting patrons and staff, and remaining flexible," said Arizona Restaurant Association President Steve Chucri in that emailed release. "Our restaurants know what to do, and Gov. Ducey's updated guidance will allow them to operate the best way they see fit."

"In Sahuarita, we're ready to ease restrictions and safely begin the process to returning to normal," said Sahuarita Mayor Tom Murphy. "Businesses and community members know what it takes to protect one another, and I'm grateful Gov. Ducey is following the data, listening to the experts and encouraging reasonable steps moving forward."

Ducey did not inform local authorities of his move before making a public announcement. He and Mayor Romero have reportedly not spoken for more than a year, since the very beginning of the pandemic.

"It is unfortunate that Gov. Ducey is caving to political pressure from the far-right and hopping on the bandwagon of reckless actions of other governors instead of following the science and doing what's best for Arizonans," the Tucson mayor said Thursday.

Kozachik said in an afternoon press release that people should "please realize this is an executive order issued by a guy who has been fully vaccinated and is evidently now comfortable behaving as if that made COVID disappear in our community. Science is not a rumor. COVID-19 is still present and the more virulent U.K. strain is now present. Ducey cannot rescind that reality."

"If you are a private business operator, you have the right to implement any and all CDC recommended guidelines related to mask wearing, distancing, and group sizes," Kozachik said. "The governor does not have the legal authority to restrict the rules you put into place for the safety of your customers and your staff."

Masks still encouraged

Under Ducey's order, bars will be allowed to again operate under pre-COVID regulations, without the requirement that they offer "dine-in" food.

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Local mask orders "will be phased out. Mask usage is still encouraged, especially in groups that are not vaccinated," Ducey's office said. Under the executive order, local governments are immediately barred from enforcing any public mask mandates.

Events and gatherings of more than 50 people will no longer need the approval of local governments, under Ducey's order.

"These events should continue to follow safe practices and CDC recommendations, including physical distancing. This includes youth sports," the governor's office said.

County officials are preparing an updated public health advisory that will "emphasize the need for continued mitigation and protection against the spread of COVID-19."

"As the governor readily admits, we are still in the midst of a public health emergency. People are still getting sick and dying. It is incumbent upon all of us to do everything we can to prevent the spread of this disease," said Dr. Theresa Cullen, the county health director.

"I know the restrictions on business has been very difficult and some have had to stop operating. And we're all tired of the masks and limitations. But I urge businesses to think about the safety of their customers and their own employees," Cullen said in a news release. "We need people to keep wearing masks. We need people to limit their gatherings and how many people are in a closed area without ventilation. We need everyone, not just businesses, to take this seriously. We are still in a very deadly situation and if we're reckless in our behavior, it will get worse, especially now that the COVID variants are established in our county."

'Political games'

Ducey is "playing political games with the lives of all Arizonans," said Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz.

"With only 16 percent of  Arizona's population fully vaccinated, and thousands of people every day clamoring to secure a vaccine appointment, we are far from the herd immunity needed to resume normal life in our state," said Heinz, who works as a medical doctor at a local hospital and has treated COVID patients.

"When Arizona was the number-one hotspot in the world for COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, it wasn't a fluke. That was a direct consequence of Gov. Ducey’s decision-making, and led to immeasurable loss. I shudder to think of what his decision today will bring," said Heinz in an emailed statement. "One thing is certain: the inept executive order issued today will delay our ultimate return to a healthy economy." 

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said it was ironic that Ducey made the determination to lift health regulations based on the speed of vaccinations just as he prevented the federal government from providing more than 200,000 additional doses that would have been administered at a FEMA clinic in Tucson.

"While the governor acts like the pandemic is over, we know it's not," Huckelberry said. "Pima County will continue to take the necessary precautions to protect the public health at our facilities and properties, which includes leased properties.

"Masks will still be required in our buildings and properties, including among staff, and occupancy and physical distancing will still be enforced," Huckelberry said in the news release. "Restrictions will ease in county parks, facilities, buildings and properties when our Health leaders and the science says it's safe to do so. We're not going to let politics drive our decision making when it comes to protecting public health."

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From Ducey's office:

Several key data points contributed to these changes:

Mass distribution of the vaccine:

3,041,773 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered to 1,927,278 individuals in Arizona, including 1,185,986 who have been fully vaccinated.

10 weeks of declining cases.

Hospitalizations at the lowest level since the end of September/beginning of October.

Opening of vaccine appointments to all Arizonans 16 years of age and older.

A recent evaluation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that ranks Arizona among the best states in the nation for getting the COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable communities.

President Biden's recent promise that every American will be able to be vaccinated by May 1.

Ducey ordered that "no county, city or town may make or issue any order, rule or regulation that conflicts with or is in addition to the policy, directives or intent of this order or any other executive order relating to the COVID-19 public health emergency... this includes but is not limited to mandated use of face mask coverings."

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1 comment on this story

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9 comments
Mar 25, 2021, 2:31 pm
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As usual, our Govenator chooses his personal wants over the needs of the citizens of Arizona. He cares not one whit that this will spike a new increase in cases, prolong the epidemic and result in more deaths. He only listens to his wealthy cronies’ desires to increase their profit margins. #ThanksDouchey #DoucheyKillsAZ

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Gov. Doug Ducey and ADHS head Dr. Cara Christ at a press conference at the University of Arizona on Wednesday.

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