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Pima County moving to mandate COVID-19 masks in public

Face-coverings to be required indoors in public places as coronavirus cases surge again

Wearing masks indoors in public places will be required across Pima County if the Board of Supervisors OKs a measure at a meeting Tuesday morning. The resolution, likely to pass, would buck the supervisors' recent trend of voting against similar COVID mitigation measures.

The county-wide indoor mask mandate — called a "call to arms for everyone to step up and do their part to help prevent the spread of a deadly virus, especially during the holidays" by county officials — is on the agenda for Tuesday morning meeting. The requirement would last until the end of February 2022, and comes as COVID-19 cases are again surging in Southern Arizona, and the arrival of the Omicron variant here has health officials concerned about even more infections and deaths this winter.

Across Arizona, COVID-19 cases have reached their highest numbers since last winter, before vaccines were available. The county resolution, brought before the board by Supervisor Matt Heinz, also expresses concerns for local businesses, saying“at this critical moment of the pandemic,” county residents can’t be sure others will wear masks without a requirement.

“It is important to note that without such a mandate, we can assume that local businesses will suffer,” the resolution reads. “Individuals who cannot be assured that their fellow Pima County residents are going to be masking up may simply choose to stop patronizing restaurants and other local businesses altogether in order to protect their health and that of their families.”

The lone Republican on the board, Supervisor Steve Christy, has adamantly opposed pandemic restrictions, but to pass the measure Heinz will need the support of just two of the other three members: Chairwoman Sharon Bronson, and Supervisors. Adelita Grijalva and Rex Scott — all Democrats. Heinz —a medical doctor who has been working in a local hospital throughout the pandemic — has repeatedly pushed for more public health measures, but to his frustration fallen short of recruiting a board majority to back many of his suggestions.

The proposal is supported by county officials, with Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher recommending in a memo Monday that the supervisors approve the public mask mandate.

:The scientific data once again supports a recommendation for universal indoor masking as an impactful low-cost, broadly available, evidence-based intervention that can curb infection and prevent mortality associated with COVID-19," Lesher wrote. "While admittedly there is no practical enforcement option, it has been shown in this community and elsewhere in the country that the mere existence of a mask mandate increases the likelihood of mask use by the public."

Last Wednesday, the nationwide death toll from COVID passed 800,000, the largest toll globally. Pima County has had fewer than eight ICU beds available since the summer, and the rate of transmission in the county has increased since mid-summer from more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period to four times that rate in November. The Omicron variant was confirmed in Pima County on Thursday, and Maricopa county confirmed their first three cases of the new variant last Monday.

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Arizona reported 2,176 new cases of the virus on Monday, and Pima County reported 188. There were only three ICU beds available in Pima County on Wednesday and 34 percent of those beds were being used by COVID-19 patients. Emergency Room beds are currently occupied at 77 percent of their total capacity.

“The healthcare system is under enormous strain, even as we brace for the arrival of the Omicron variant in Pima County,” the masking resolution reads.

Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher supported that conclusion in her memo, recommending that the supervisors adopt the "call to arms."

"This second winter surge in cases is again severely straining our healthcare resources and requiring continued investment of Pima County resources to bolster vaccination, testing and other mitigation measures," she said in her memo. "Many in the community are looking to the Board of Supervisors and the County Health Department for help. New state laws and other state actions have limited the tools we have to respond to the requests for action to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19... given the global surge of the exceptionally more transmissible omicron variant, it is appropriate to reconsider the tools that are available to mitigate its impact on Pima County particularly during this winter holiday season."

The Board of Supervisors passed a mask mandate in June 2020 for everyone indoors and outdoors but lifted it in May of this year as the rate of infection dropped to below 10 new cases per 100,000 people per week. The supervisors also nixed a mask mandate for schools and a vaccine mandate for county employees in August. The county is in the process of firing unvaccinated employees who work with vulnerable populations as the deadline for them to vaccinate expires on Dec. 31. The city of Tucson has a vaccine mandate for all municipal employees.

The new mask mandate proposed by Heinz would require that indoor establishments that are open to the public provide masks for employees and allows an establishment to require a person to leave if they’re not masking and physical distancing of at least 6 feet is not possible. No civil or criminal enforcement of the mandate can happen without approval from the Pima County Board of Supervisors, though the resolution would allow enforcement action written in state law for public health and safety violations to take place if someone refuses.

Exemptions apply to kids younger than five, people with disabilities or medical conditions whose breathing could be obstructed by a mask, people who are eating or drinking or people for whom wearing a mask would create a risk at work, among others.

The resolution would take effect as an emergency measure as soon as adopted.

Supervisor Matt Heinz for District 2, which covers Southern Tucson and most of Sahuarita, put the resolution forward. Heinz has previously expressed frustration at the board’s reluctance to adopt COVID mitigation measures for schools, county residents or county employees — including a vaccine mandate for employees and the mask mandate for schools in August.

A national increase in masking by 15 percent could prevent another lockdown and save more than $1 trillion, according to recent economic analysis cited in a letter from Heinz to the rest of the board.

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The resolution is also coming less than a week after Gov. Doug Ducey attempted to block vaccine mandates for employees for the city of Tucson and Pima County though local officials said he had no such legal power.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors has one Republican, Supervisor Steve Christy of District 4 in Eastern Pima County. Christy has attacked mask mandates in the past, even refusing to wear a mask as a way for the board to start meeting in person again, an idea he had suggested at a previous meeting. Christy has also sparred with Heinz during their meetings in the past, but Heinz is the only supervisor who has publicly stated how he'll vote on the resolution.

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

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz at a FEMA-managed vaccination site in early May.

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