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Pima County orders COVID face masks indoors in all public places

Supervisors cite Omicron, overwhelmed hospitals in renewing requirement to wear face coverings

People across Pima County must wear face masks while indoors in all public places to limit the spread of COVID-19, after the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to institute the public health mandate Tuesday.

The move to reinstate the requirement, which was lifted last spring as cases waned, comes as new COVID-19 infections are rising to their highest numbers since last winter, before vaccines were available, and as the new Omicron variant spreads here.

The renewed mask requirement is a "rally cry" to the public, said Supervisor Matt Heinz, who put the mandate on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting. Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher, who advised the supervisors to adopt the measure, said it was a "call to arms."

Masking is now required in all indoor establishments where continuous physical distancing of at least six feet is not possible. The measure takes effect immediately, and will last at least until the end of February 2022. Limited exemptions are available to children under 5, people with disabilities who can’t breath with a mask, people who are eating or drinking and in jobs where wearing a mask can create a safety risk, among others.

The previous mask mandate, which required masking outdoors as well, was passed in June 2020, only months into the pandemic. The supervisors lifted it in May

Enforcement of the mask mandate is not backed by civil or criminal penalties, without specific authorization by the board, according to the resolution brought forward by Heinz. This led to Supervisor Rex Scott to vote “no” alongside Supervisor Steve Christy, the only Republican on the board.

The renewed requirement that everyone wear masks in public buildings — including in businesses across Pima County, regardless of whether they're located in a town or city — includes the same ability for the board to proceed with enforcement against specific violators, although officials will primarily focus on education efforts.

But a state law, passed last year and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, may significantly limit the ability of the county to pressure businesses. HB 2770, which went into effect this fall, exempts businesses from having to enforce mask mandates. Businesses have remained able to enforce wearing masks, even without the county's latest measure.

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Without Scott’s approval, the mandate passed with the minimum three votes as Board Chair Sharon Bronson and Supervisor Adelita Grijalva backed Heinz, who has repeatedly tried to push for broad public health measures like vaccine mandates for all county employees, but often failed prior to Tuesday's vote.

"The public should view today’s vote as a rally cry for everyone in our community to take a simple and benign action that will go a long way to protect themselves and their community from the spread of a deadly disease," said Heinz, a medical doctor who has worked in a local hospital throughout the pandemic. "Masks work if everyone wears them. So please wear one and help our community slow and stop the spread of COVID-19."

Bronson said she voted in favor of the mandate because of how hospitals have been burdened with the number of patients infected with the Delta variant, and the threat posed by the arrival of the more contagious Omicron variant of the virus.

"This is a simple act the people of Pima County can take that shows that we are all in this together in working to stop the spread of this disease. The board’s action can serve as the impetus for everyone to show their community spirit and that they’re willing to do what’s necessary to protect themselves and their community," Lesher said in a news release.

Scott said he didn’t believe the mandate would achieve countywide indoor masking because the county had no way of enforcing it at a time when mask-wearing is increasingly attacked or ignored by some members of the public.

“If there were any certainty that a mask mandate imposed by this Board of Supervisors would achieve that result, I would vote for it in an instant,” he said. “Unfortunately, ever since the pandemic began, there has been an ugly bevy of falsehoods, fears and resentments about masks fed to our citizens by some in leadership positions who should forever be ashamed of their ignorance and selfishness.”

Instead, the responsibility of enforcing masking in the county, Scott said, would fall on the shoulders of already overburdened local employees at businesses.

“Although I firmly believe that each of us should be wearing masks, I’m certain that a sizable number of Pima County residents will defy or ignore any mandate we may enact here,” he said. “The responsibility for the enforcement of (the previous mask mandate) fell on those who work in our restaurants, stores and other public accommodations. If a new mandate is put in place today, it will be their charge, not ours to enforce it as well.”

Attitudes against masks have exacerbated since the end of the last mask mandate seven months ago, Scott said, saying “the demonizing and politicizing of mask mandate has grown more angry and intense” since then.

Who will enforce mask mandate?

The question of enforcement was also brought up by Christy, who asked Acting Administrator Lesher how it would be enforced, who was enforcing it and what the consequences would be.

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Lesher had recommended that the supervisors pass the mandate in a memo and said the reason was to “continue to use (the mandate) as an educational tool.”

“Our hope, for example, is that if a person at a business is uncomfortable that perhaps the staff is required to be masked and if they’re uncomfortable with someone coming into their facility without a mask, they could request that that individual wear a mask,” she said.

The County Health Department is not being asked to do any kind of enforcement, she said. County administration, she said, expects that the mandate works like seat belt laws as police officers don’t check whether each driver is wearing theirs but having a law increases compliance.

As with the previous mask mandate, county officials have the ability to bring suggestions for further enforcement to the supervisors, such as taking action against businesses that routinely allow people to flout the requirement.

Heinz included concerns about businesses and the economy in the resolution to mandate masking, writing that “it is important to note that without such a mandate, we can assume that local businesses will suffer” and that a national increase in masking by 15 percent could prevent another lockdown and save more than $1 trillion.

“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,” Heinz’s resolution reads, which led Christy to accuse Heinz of telling people not to patronize businesses unless they enforce masking.

Heinz said that rather his intention is to protect the local economy and small businesses.

Masking expected to slow Omicron, help the hospitals

The mask mandate is expected to slow the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. The new variant now accounts for more than 73 percent of new COVID cases nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control said on Monday, less than three weeks after the first case of the new variant was confirmed to be in the U.S. Pima County confirmed their first case of the variant on Thursday, and the University of Arizona confirmed seven cases on campus Tuesday.

Arizona reported 2,395 new COVID cases on Tuesday and 223 deaths while Pima County 343 new infections and 42 deaths. Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, told the board on Tuesday that 20 percent of COVID cases in Pima County are breakthrough cases and that those numbers are reflected statewide as well, but he said vaccinated COVID patients have much better outcomes and more often avoid hospitalization and death.

The county’s vaccination rate among the vaccine eligible population — anyone older than 5 — is 67 percent, a slow increase from the previous month. The positivity rate, or the percent of people who test positive for COVID, is down from 14 percent in November to 12 percent as of Tuesday.

Pima County, like every other county in Arizona, is still an area of “high” COVID transmission, according to the CDC, which means there are more than 100 cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. That rate was 238 cases per 100,000 people as of Tuesday and has been as high as 400 cases per 100,000 in recent months.

The county reported only six ICU beds available as of Thursday and hasn’t reported more than eight available since the summer.

A mask mandate is also expected to slow the spread of the virus in K-12 schools, which started winter vacations last week. A study of Pima and Maricopa County schools in the summer led by Arizona State University found students are 3.5 times more likely to contract COVID without a mask mandate. The study took place before the Delta variant was dominant.

"The findings reinforce and give credence to the existing guidance from the CDC and Pima County: Universal mask wearing in schools is absolutely an essential part of a layered mitigation strategy against the spread of COVID-19," the Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen wrote as one of the authors of the study.

The Board of Supervisors also passed other measures responding to the COVID surge and Omicron including delaying the question of when to return to in-person board meetings and adding $8 million to a contract for contact tracing and extending it into the summer.

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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Dec 21, 2021, 2:06 pm
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Christy as usual has his jackboots laced tight. Not sure what the deal with Scott is—a DINO?

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Supervisor Matt Heinz, a medical doctor, scored a victory after passing a county-wide indoor mask mandate for Pima County with a 3-2 Board of Supervisors vote, but concerns linger about who will be tasked with enforcing the requirement.

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