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Pima Supes mandate COVID-19 face masks county-wide

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on Friday to require wearing face masks in public everywhere in Pima County — an order that supersedes any town and city regulations — to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The action comes as the number of new coronavirus cases in Arizona is setting records on a daily basis.

The mandate approved by the supervisors applies to all areas of Pima County outside of tribal jurisdictions, including within the city of Tucson and the towns of Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita. It is similar to an order issued by Tucson Mayor Regina Romero on Thursday, but carries no immediate civil or criminal penalties.

Enforcement will be mostly education by Health Department staff, Chairman Ramón Valadez said. "It's primarily carrot, with informing people," he told TucsonSentinel.com.

All people age five and up in the county must wear an effective face mask while in public when they cannot socially distance, under the order approved on a party-line basis by the supervisors.

Valadez and fellow Democratic Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Betty Villegas voted for the ordinance; Republican Sups. Steve Christy and Ally Miller were opposed.

While the county's top health officials said the regulations were based on a "great deal of common sense," Miller said the rules "sound very much like a police state to me... pitting neighbor against neighbor" with an online system to report violations of the ordinance at establishments.

Under the new county rules, masks that include a valve that allow breath to escape are not considered compliant, as they allow droplets that could contain coronavirus particles to escape.

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The ordinance goes into effect immediately, and face coverings are required when in public if six feet of physical distancing cannot be maintained. The supervisors modified a proposed ordinance, raising the age requirement from 2 years old to 5, and eliminating any criminal enforcement. Unlike the city measure, which carried a $50 civil fine or five hours of community service for violators, the county will not take immediate action except to inform people of the rule.

The rule applies in all public places, defined as: "[A]ny place, indoor or outdoor, that is open to the public and includes, but is not limited to, businesses or other establishments where people assemble or members of the general public may enter; offices; public buildings, highways and parks, and public transportation including taxis and ride sharing."

Any establishment open to the public also must require its employees wear face coverings, and if the establishment is unable to maintain physical distancing, it may ask members of the public to leave if not wearing a face covering and not covered by an exception. The county will set up a page on its website where the public can file written complaints "alleging noncompliance ... at any establishment that is open to the public." Complainants, who will be required to provide their names, will be able to upload photographs to the site. The county will post copies of the complaints and photos online.

Exemptions to the mandate are:

  • Children under the age of five
  • People who cannot medically tolerate wearing a face covering
  • People who are hearing impaired or communicate with the hearing impaired
  • Law enforcement officers and other individuals who would create risk related to their work as determined by local, state federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines
  • People who are receiving a service that involve their nose, face or head
  • People who are eating or drinking at a restaurant or food and beverage service establishment, so long as they are maintaining a six-foot distance from people from outside their household or party
  • People who are in a public place together and live in the same household or a part of a party of 10 or less, so long as they are maintaining a six-foot distance from people from outside their household or party
  • People who are engaging in outdoor work, recreation or exercise, if they can maintain six feet of physical distance
  • People who are incarcerated
  • People who are swimming

While there is no direct county enforcement, officials are prepared to report businesses that refuse to comply with the ordinance to state authorities, including informing the state liquor board regarding bars that refuse to follow the rules.

"This is not just about personal responsibility. This is community responsibility – our responsibility to others, especially the vulnerable who need us to do what is right to keep them safe. Wearing a mask is not a burden, it is a badge of honor that shows you are doing your part to try to stop the spread of this horrible disease and help save lives," said Valadez.

"I and our team of public health and infectious disease experts have reviewed all the available research and it overwhelmingly shows that widespread use of facial coverings will reduce the spread of this disease, reduce the number of deaths, and help us get this under control. The science is clear – masks work," said Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen.

Cullen and the Back to Business Road to Recovery subcommittee of doctors and other health experts advised that the county adopt the mask rule earlier in the day.

'Police raids on family birthday parties'

While the Democrats who passed the measure were mostly quiet during the afternoon special meeting, beyond asking several softball questions of the county staff, the two Republicans were heated in their opposition.

Christy, noting that we "must certainly be very concerned ... about the most vulnerable among us," raised the spectre of a "police raid" on a "family birthday party for a preschooler" if masks weren't worn.

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"Is this how we want to deploy our law enforcement community?," he asked. "People have to be responsible for themselves."

"There will be community pushback," said Christy, who attended the meeting via phone. "All of this will be devastating for business."

Christy has not conformed with a county board policy that everyone, including the supervisors, wear masks inside the county building, attending the previous meeting without one.

Miller cites quack post on conspiracy website

Miller, in addition to her comments about a "police state," said that "all of the people not wearing masks probably fit into one of these exemptions" and that the "ordinance is not going to change that behavior."

The Republican supervisor, who is not seeking another term, referenced Russell Blaylock, a conspiracy-minded anti-vaccine and anti-chemotherapy medical scaremonger whose coronavirus statements have gone viral online, as being opposed to mask rules.

"He doesn't agree with the use of masks," she said, referring to a post on the notorious conspiracist website Global Research, where Miller said he "published a paper."

"I think he has some credibility," said Miller, who also attended the meeting by phone, saying that wearing a mask gives her headaches and "nausea symptoms."

She cited Blaylock's claims about "hypoxia" and "elevation in CO2" among mask wearers. Those assertions have been widely debunked by medical experts, as have many other claims by Blaylock, who has been described as "no stranger to fear-mongering for profit."

From a report on Blaylock by the Outline:

(Blaylock) hitched his wagon of books and nutritional supplements to just about every medical conspiracy theory that has come along, with a remarkable ability to appeal to both the extreme right and extreme left. He’s anti-vaxx. He’s anti-GMO. He has written that elderly patients were euthanized under Obamacare and told InfoWars that fluoride in drinking water is a eugenics program that causes ADHD. He has claimed in at least one lecture that that poor nutrition is part of an Illuminati agenda to make people violent and reduce the global population. He was once named “Quack of the Day” by The Vaccine Conspiracy Theorist, a pro-vaccine blog about the anti-vaxx movement.

The man behind the website referenced by Miller, Michel Chossudovsky of Global Research, is an infamous conspiracist who has published so-called "9/11 Truth" fantasies, and played a role in spreading pro-Russian and pro-Syrian propaganda, according to NATO. His "Centre for Research on Globalization" is rife with anti-Semitic smears and Holocaust denial, as well as spreading so-called "9/11 Truth" claims and anti-scientific speculation about 5G technology.

County staff reference medical data

Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, told the supervisors that of the more than 5,000 people who have contracted the disease in Pima County, nearly half have become ill within the past three weeks with the rate of infection outpacing the rate of testing.

More than 43,000 people have been infected in Arizona and that number has nearly doubled in two weeks.

Friday morning, state health officials said there were 46,689 total COVID-19 cases reported in Arizona, with 1,312 deaths — 41 more deaths reported and an increase of 3,246 cases from the previous day — a new record high for a single day in the state, following a record 2,519 fresh cases on Thursday. Last Wednesday, there were 29,852 cases and 1,095 deaths in the state. Two weeks ago, there were 22,233 reported diagnosed cases and 981 people had died of the disease in the state.

Researchers at Arizona State University said the total number of COVID-19 cases in the state will likely double yet again by mid-July at the latest.

Among the research reviewed by Cullen's team included a British study published in The Lancet that was a review of existing COVID-19 research and summarized findings. Among the major findings was the efficacy of widespread face mask use in public in reducing infection spread.

Also considered by the county committee was a similar study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that concluded: "…wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic."

"I understand why the public is confused" by shifting advice on face masks and other measures, Garcia told the supervisors. "We are learning more and more about how this virus is transmitted."

"What we've learned subsequently in the past two months is that the aerosols we exhale when we speak ... are a source of infection," he said. Masks "prevent both droplet transmission and aerosol transmission."

Enforcement dialed back

While the draft of the ordinance provided for possible criminal enforcement under state laws barring violating such orders, Valadez moved to pull that section after Bronson raised concerns.

"To make it criminal, given that sometimes we can't control other people's actions, that concerns me," she said. Bronson said she favored a "civil violation, not a criminal one" similar to the emergency proclamation by the city.

Bronson also asked that the county "track the ethnicity of the people who are cited, to make sure there isn't a disproportionate racial impact as to enforcement."

The three Democratic supervisors voted to remove any criminal enforcement measures from the ordinance. As passed, any enforcement involving law enforcement or the courts would have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors at a future meeting.

The exemptions in the new county ordinance are similar to those in the order covering the city of Tucson issued Thursday night.

Sup. Villegas said during the county board meeting that she thought "the best way to handle it, so we're not in conflict with anyone else" is to have regulations that are as identical as possible, so the jurisdictions are "working together."

Tucson's Mayor Regina Romero issued an emergency order Thursday, a day after Gov. Doug Ducey loosened his restrictions that had kept local governments from ordering masks be worn in public.

The City Council unanimously adopted a measure Friday night, after the supervisors' meeting, that parallels the county ordinance,
including raising the age at which the mandate applies to 5 years old.

The Council will meet Tuesday to review adding civil penalties such as those that were in Romero's emergency proclamation.

Ducey loosens block on city, county mask rules

Ducey announced that he will allow local governments to mandate wearing face coverings in public to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, faced with a chorus from Arizona's city and county officials and spiking coronavirus numbers.

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The Republican governor, reacting to the dramatic increase in the number of reported coronavirus cases, also ordered that businesses require employees to wear face coverings "when feasible," and that all Arizona front-of-house restaurant staff wear face masks.

He stopped well short of issuing a statewide mandate.

Ducey's earlier executive orders had barred local governments from setting any policies more restrictive than the governor's statewide orders.

With the number of reported coronavirus cases in the state nearly doubling in the past two weeks, Tucson and Pima County officials had pushed Ducey to allow them to issue more stringent requirements for people to wear face masks in public. Previously, Ducey had stuck with recommending masks without any enforcement, and has not publicly set an example by wearing a mask himself.

Ducey issued an executive order Wednesday, allowing counties, cities and towns to "adopt policies regarding the wearing of face coverings in public for the purpose of mitigating the spread of COVID-19."

Southern Arizona officials quickly said after the governor's Wednesday announcement that they would move to enact such policies.

"COVID-19 is still out there; it's still contagious," Valadez said. "Wash your hands, don't touch your face, and wear a mask." The Pima County Supervisors will discuss mask regulations on Friday.

Calling "untying the hands of local governments on wearing masks" a "positive step," Romero tweeted that she plans on signing an emergency proclamation Thursday. "This will save lives."

Ducey acknowledged Wednesday that Arizona's count of coronavirus cases has dramatically increased in the last two weeks.

"There is an indication that we are not out of the woods," he said.

Judy Rich, CEO of TMCHealthCare, said Thursday that "Contrary to what some believe, the urgency behind mandating universal masking is not a political position. It is a human-interest stance coming from the medical professionals on the front lines of this pandemic."

Urging all local governments to adopt mandatory masking rules, Rich said of medical experts, "We are leading the charge with one agenda – to stop this virus. It's time to come together as a community so we can protect each other and those most vulnerable. Many people have expressed the desire to do something to help. This is what they can do. Wear a mask. It is a very effective weapon in this war against an invisible enemy. It is a simple act that can do so much. We ask that our local leaders join us in helping to save lives now."

"What we know now that we didn't know at the onset of this pandemic is just how critical masking is to flattening the curve and saving lives," Rich said in a statement to the press. "Recent studies have shown that the use of face coverings reduces transmission of the COVID-19 virus by at least 50 percent."

"We have seen first-hand that since the reopening of of our state, too many of our community members are either not observing social distancing or ignoring the need to wear a face mask," Rich said Thursday. "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."

'Serious changes - there will be enforcement' — Ducey

"Serious changes need to be made, and there will be enforcement" against "bad actors" among businesses that do not mandate social distancing and other measures to slow the coronavirus, the Republican governor said Wednesday.

Any local face-mask rules must allow individuals to comply with the measures before enforcement action is taken, the order said. Any enforcement against violators will be "up to the mayors and county supervisors," Ducey said.

Tucson and Pima County, along with the city of Nogales and Santa Cruz County, are each expected to enact some sort of mask mandate.

Earlier this week, Pima County Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Valadez had called for Ducey to give them the ability to set up local face-mask rules.

Valadez, the chairman of county Board of Supervisors, said Wednesday after Ducey's press conference that he was calling a special meeting for Friday afternoon to discuss the matter.

"I believe the board will do everything it can to protect the health of the people of Pima County," Valadez said in a news release. "We have to get control of this outbreak. We've lost too many lives already."

If a county "Back to Business Road to Recovery" subcommittee of local health experts that is meeting earlier Friday "says everyone should be wearing a mask, then the board should use the unique powers granted to the County Health Department by state law and make it a requirement of the public until it becomes safe to stop," he said the day before that meeting.

Bronson said Wednesday that she thinks "we need mandatory enforcement for wearing masks in public, and I hope we can after the second offense establish penalties." She suggested fines at the misdemeanor level, under the laws barring violation of emergency proclamations.

'Trend in the wrong direction'

The governor told reporters in a Wednesday press conference that "I said two weeks ago there was not a trend (of negative data). Looking at the last two weeks, there is a trend, in the wrong direction."

Saying that "we've got a big state, with different challenges and different geographies," Ducey said that he has "heard from local governments requesting the ability to mandate masks."

Democratic political leaders have said they have not had any contact with Ducey for months. They have not been informed of his press conferences, and they have been unable to speak with him on the phone. Mayor Romero said that the Republican governor has not responded to her, saying she was told to "submit a meeting request form." The mayors of Phoenix and Flagstaff have also been given the silent treatment. U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also a Democrat, said that Ducey and his team "indicated they may not have the time or the interest to spend a lot of time with me on the phone."

Moments after Ducey’s announcement Wednesday, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego tweeted that face masks will be on the next City Council agenda.

In her tweet, Gallego said the council will vote “to mandate face masks for residents going on essential business and in public spaces.”

Nogales Mayor Arutro Garino and others have previously expressed interest in having more local power to control the spread of the pandemic. On Monday, Garino applauded Ducey for encouraging Arizonans to follow federal guidelines, including masks, but urged further action because new infections still are on the rise.

After entering Wednesday's news conference in Phoenix wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer – a first while cameras rolled – Ducey told reporters he expects local mandates to have better compliance because local leaders have a better idea of what their constituents want.

“We have successfully slowed the spread of COVID-19 in the past. We’re going to successfully slow COVID-19 again,” he said.

"Following outbreaks in select parts of the state, including along the southern border and in northeastern counties," the Arizona Department of Health Services "today released updated guidance allowing local governments to implement mask and face-covering policies and determine enforcement measures. The guidance allows local authorities to tailor mitigation efforts specific to the local public health need," a statement from Ducey's office said.

Ducey's order will be in effect until at least July 1, and will be "considered for repeal or revision" every two weeks.

Since Ducey lifted his stay-at-home order May 15, a number of restaurants have closed again because of outbreaks of illness among their employees.

“Arizona businesses also need to do their part,” Ducey said. “As we’ve reopened, there have been good actors. And I’ve said several times, there have been outliers. By and large, Arizona businesses have been terrific, but there have been more than an outlier here and there.”

Other cities and local leadership are expected to make announcements in coming days.

“Serious changes are needed to be made, and there will be enforcement around those changes,” the governor said.

Cronkite News reporter Lisa Diethelm contributed to this report.


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