Pima County's mask mandate remains in effect and health inspectors have the legal authority to enforce those mandates in food establishments, county officials argued on Tuesday morning.
In a March 26 letter, the Pima County Attorney’s Office informed County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry that Gov. Doug Ducey does not have the legal authority to prevent the County Health Department from enacting reasonable public health measures.
Everyone in Pima County over the age of 5 must wear a face mask over their nose and mouth unless they have a qualifying exemption or are able to maintain physical distance, according to Resolution 2020-96, said Deputy County Attorney Jonathan Pinkney. The Board passed the resolution on Dec. 4, 2020.
Pima County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia said the board has authority, through an Arizona statute (ARS11-251), to adopt provisions to preserve the health of the county, and the Arizona Supreme Court recognized counties “may enact public health measures that are equal to or more restrictive than ADHS.” Garcia called Ducey’s order an “overreach on the part of the executive.”
Garcia admits the arguments being made are similar to those made in court when local bars sued the county for the mandatory curfew passed on Dec. 15, but believes they stand on “solid ground.” and brushed off concerns about a legal challenge.
“Bring it on,” Garcia said.
Contrary to Ducey’s statement that mask mandates are neither followed nor enforced, Garcia said Pima County receives complaints through their portal.
He explained the county has a “‘three strikes and you're out” process in place to process complaints. The county receives complaints and works with businesses to resolve the conflict. He said there have been very few cases the county needed to take action.
In consultation with Huckelberry, the county attorney and Garcia, County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen will continue to instruct health inspectors to enforce the mask mandate in establishments that prepare or offer food. The resolution also covers any establishment open to the public.
Any businesses violating the resolution can be fined $500 per infraction, and potentially face suspension or revocation of its operating permits. Individuals can also be fined $50 per infraction, although the county has not fined anyone so far, said Garcia in a press briefing Tuesday.
“We believe that most operators in this county are doing the right thing," said Garcia. "We believe that most citizens in Pima County are doing the right thing, and we want to continue to give them the tools that they need to be able to continue to demand that people use masks when they are in public spaces."
Despite the continued vaccination effort and the approval of a federal POD that could vaccinate another 210,000 residents, Garcia noted that last week in Pima County, the number of COVID cases increased last week for the first time in 10 weeks.
For the week ending March 21, Garcia reported Pima County had 16 more cases of COVID-19 than the previous week. The previous week saw one more death than the previous week and case numbers would likely change because of the reporting lag.
Garcia said the bump was only one death, "but that person mattered to their family, and any loss of life, which is avoidable, is something that we need to mitigate against.”
Garcia noted the concern over the growing number of COVID-19 variants in the county and Arizona at large, with the South African, UK, Brazilian, and California variants found in Arizona, which may be more transmissible and potentially more harmful.
“One of the silver linings here, though, is that the same kinds of mitigation measures that allow us to prevent transmission for the normal garden variety COVID are going to be the same ones that allow us to prevent transmission with these potentially more infectious more transmissible variants,” said Garcia.
By enforcing a mask mandate, Garcia hopes to “buy time” for Pima County as it continues in its vaccination efforts.
"It’s unfortunate that the governor has taken this action, which other people are interpreting as the pandemic is over,” Garcia said.
While he’s sick of it too, Garcia asks people to continue to follow these “relatively easy measures” until the county has achieved a level of community immunity with at least 75 percent of the population vaccinated. "We are not there yet and we cannot pretend that the behaviors that we're engaged in public don't impact the health and well-being of others,” Garcia said.
The county has vaccinated about 28 percent of Pima County residents with 455,873 vaccines administered. Garcia estimates that within two to three weeks, county officials will achieve a level of vaccination that will allow the community to breathe.
“Our goal here isn’t to fight with the governor or fight with the state," Garcia said. "Our goal is to try to do the best thing that we know how to do for the people of Pima County. We will continue to do that and we hope that we will have a healthier community because of that.