Masks

Ruben Atondo wears a face mask at his fruit stand on Mariposa Road in Nogales on Wednesday. Noting the gravity of the COVID-19 epidemic in the local area, and the fact that he’s seen a lot of people out and about and in stores without masks, Atondo said he’s in favor of compulsory mask use. “Otherwise, this is never going to end,” he said.

Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker lobbied Gov. Doug Ducey for the power to require people to wear face masks in public.

And now they’ve got it.

Ducey announced during a news conference on Wednesday that he would allow Arizona’s local governments to impose their own mandatory mask rules – a move that comes less than a week after he specifically rejected the concept of local control on issues of public health.

“We are going to change and update guidance so that local governments can implement mask and face covering policies and determine enforcement,” he said.

Garino, who sent a letter to Ducey on Monday asking for the authority to require face masks in the city, said following the governor’s announcement Wednesday that he plans to set a city council meeting for early next week to consider an ordinance or a resolution addressing the issue.

He said that the requirement would apply to places like businesses and restaurants, “any indoor place that you would need a mask because you’re going to have problems social distancing.”

The mayor said he planned to push out information about a new mask policy as part of a larger campaign to educate local residents and businesses about public health recommendations.

As for any police enforcement of the mask requirement, Garino said: “I don’t want to do that” and added he didn’t want a “mask police.”

The governor’s move followed calls from a number of Southern Arizona leaders to let local governments set their own rules on face mask use.

The Arizona Border Counties Coalition, which includes Santa Cruz, Yuma, Pima and Cochise counties, sent a letter to Ducey dated June 13 that was signed by Bracker, as well as the mayors of San Luis and Somerton in Yuma County. Garino followed-up with a similar missive dated June 15.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero tweeted a video on Monday saying that she wanted Ducey to allow local governments to implement their own measures to combat the pandemic, such as face mask requirements.

On Wednesday, Ducey pointed specifically to concerns raised in border communities as the reason for the move.

“The situation is different in just about each place that you look,” he said after comparing infection rates in Santa Cruz and Yavapai counties and noting the rising number of cases in Santa Cruz and Yuma counties.

“Border counties are dealing with unique issues,” he said.

“I want to thank (Garino) for his thoughtful and persuasive communication and the Arizona Border Counties Coalition,” the governor added.

Reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon, Bracker returned the appreciation.

“We're extremely appreciative that the governor has made this announcement, but we're still looking for the guidance behind (it),” he said, adding that the supervisors need to learn more specifics before deciding what a mask resolution for the unincorporated areas of the county would entail.

Once the county knows the details, he said, the next steps would be to draw up a resolution and hold a special meeting to make a decision, likely by the end of this week.

As for enforcing the resolution, Bracker said: "That comes back to our question of whether we're allowed to assign a monetary penalty to this."

However, the June 13 letter to Ducey from the border county officials sought to assure the governor that they weren’t interested in enforcing face mask use with fines. It said: “This mandate would not have any financial penalties associated with it, but it would certainly garner the attention of the general public and, we hope, greatly increase the number of people wearing face masks.”

Garino said that requiring face mask use didn’t mean local residents should abandon other precautionary measures like practicing social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and staying home if you’re feeling sick.

“The mask is just another tool to help us curb the virus,” he said.

It wasn’t just the mayors and counties who have been pressuring the governor.

His move Wednesday comes on the heels of what is now more than 900 medical professionals signing a letter to Ducey asking him to issue a statewide mandate requiring anyone age 2 and older to wear a mask. They cited the lack of a vaccine or proven treatment, saying that the disease is just as contagious now as it was when he implemented his stay-at-home directive at the end of March.

“There is sufficient, clear, scientific evidence that wearing masks is one way to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and thus would reduce both the wave of severely affected patients requiring ICU and ventilator resources as well as unnecessary deaths,” they wrote.

(Reporting by Nick Phillips and Genesis Lara, with additional reporting by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services.)

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