Mask sign

A sign on the door at Tacos y Tarros restaurant in Nogales tells patrons that they must wear a face mask to enter. Arizona businesses like this one no longer have to require mask use, though they can if they want to.

Declaring the COVID-19 pandemic under control and the need for restrictions over in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey is abolishing all the limits that still remain on businesses and public gatherings.

And he is eliminating – and once again nullifying – the ability of local communities to maintain their own mask mandates.

That would appear to negate mandates imposed last spring by the City of Nogales, Town of Patagonia and Santa Cruz County governments, though the governor’s new order does not strip local governments of all of their rights. They maintain the ability to require the use of masks in public buildings and on public transit.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said her community will not comply, essentially telling Ducey that he’ll have to go to court to void the Tucson mask ordinance.

In an executive order issued Thursday, the governor dissolved all the limits he had previously imposed on how businesses need to operate. That eliminates any remaining requirements to limit the number of customers to ensure social distancing and to require that staff and patrons wear masks.

Instead, everything that used to be a mandate is now simply a “recommendation.” That means business can – but are not required – to have their own mask mandates and to refuse service to anyone who does not comply.

In issuing the new order, Ducey acknowledged that there have been nearly 940,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state, including 16,874 deaths. But he also cited the fact that the number of new cases has been declining for 10 weeks and hospitalizations are at their lowest level since the end of September.

At the same time, he said, more than 1.9 million Arizonans have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, with almost 1.2 million who are now fully inoculated. And he said the Centers for Disease Control ranks Arizona as among the best states in getting the vaccine to those who are most vulnerable.

All that, he said, leads to Thursday’s order.

“The measures put in place last summer allowed Arizona to fight back COVID-19,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “Today, we are in a different spot, and we also are a lot smarter.”

None of this affects schools, which have been reopening with requirements for teachers and students to wear masks. A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Health Services said those orders remain in effect.

And while Ducey is lifting all the restrictions imposed on businesses, he is not ending the emergency he declared slightly more than a year ago. That gives him the right to reimpose any of the restrictions any time he wants.

What that also does is preserve what he contends is his right to preclude cities, towns and counties from imposing their own more restrictive requirements.

Keeping the emergency order active also ensures continued flow of federal dollars for things like free vaccines and testing.

‘Back to normal’

While businesses will no longer be at risk of being cited or shut down for not enforcing distancing and mask wearing, Ducey said he is confident people “will continue to practice the fundamentals and act responsibly as we gradually get back to normal.”

In fact, the state health department clearly does not believe it is advisable for people and businesses to go back to life as it was before.

Hours after the governor issued his executive order, the agency put out its own recommendations.

For individuals, the health department still advises that people should wear masks when they go out to restaurants, bars and nightclubs. There also are the usual recommendations to wash hands often, especially after leaving, and, when possible, to use “touchless’’ payment methods.

The health department also wants – but can no longer require – businesses to provide physical separation between unrelated parties, whether by a barrier like plexiglass or six-foot distance and to limit large parties to no more than 10.

Salad bars and buffets also are again allowed, though the agency asks that these be limited.

And while dancing is no longer off limits, the agency wants to “encourage” those who get out on the floor to remain at least six feet from others.

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