PHOENIX — Arizona mayors are free to make wearing face masks to slow the spread of coronavirus a mandatory requirement, Gov. Doug Ducey said Wednesday.
The Republican governor, who entered a news conference wearing a black face mask but took it off to speak, said giving cities the discretion to decide would work better than a statewide mandate. He also cited the vastly different rates of positive COVID-19 cases across counties.
“For some things, a statewide directive or executive order works very well,” Ducey said. “If you have 12 or 13 counties that say ‘pound sand’ on an executive order ... it’s a self-defeating executive order.”
Before the governor’s announcement, Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland asked businesses in his city to enforce a mask policy for employees and customers.
Holly Rakoci, director of Casa Grande Main Street, a downtown business organization, sent out an email to members Tuesday afternoon with the request from McFarland.
“I received word from the Mayor this afternoon that COVID cases are climbing in Casa Grande and Pinal County. He has asked that businesses do what they can to enforce a mask policy for employees and customers,” the email stated. “He is very concerned that if this isn’t taken seriously, then another shutdown might be in the future — and he is doing his best to keep that from happening.”
McFarland could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Pinal County spokesman James Daniels said the Board of Supervisors will have a special meeting at 9:30 Friday morning to discuss the issue, including wearing masks in county buildings and by county staff. The county’s order, if any, would likely apply only to “unincorporated Pinal County” and leave decisions elsewhere up to the cities and towns, Daniels said.
Florence Mayor Tara Walter said, “We just received this information following the press conference at 3 p.m. I will convene with (town) staff, review the local statistics, and follow up with additional information.”
The governor’s announcement comes after days of mounting pressure for Ducey to take action in the wake of the state’s alarming rise in cases. Hundreds of Arizona medical professionals signed a letter calling on him to take steps like requiring face masks in public to slow a major increase that has made the state a national hot spot. The state’s biggest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, is also sounding alarms and calling for action.
The state’s top Democratic politicians are on board, with everyone from U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to mayors pushing for tougher action.
Ducey had previously resisted any kind of mandate. Since he allowed the state’s stay-at-home and most business-closure orders to expire in mid-May, the second-term governor has taken no new steps to rein in activities like raging bar scenes and the lack of mask-wearing by many people in stores, restaurants and other public spaces.
The rising numbers may have forced his hand. Arizona hospitals were treating a record number of coronavirus patients Tuesday amid a surge of new cases. The state’s Health Services Department reported a record number of emergency room visits for the virus as well.
Hospitals were treating 1,582 patients on Tuesday, an increase of more than 500 from two weeks earlier. Emergency room visits for patients with virus symptoms soared to nearly 1,100. On June 3, hospitals reported seeing 638 patients in emergency rooms.
Statewide Tuesday, hospitals were at 85% of capacity. That’s well above the 80% rate where Ducey said they would have to halt elective surgeries to preserve space.
Ducey said last week he would enforce that order, but Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said the department hadn’t yet required a halt as officials review the capacity reports. The state reported a record of nearly 2,400 cases Tuesday.
More than 700 health providers sent Ducey a letter earlier this week urging him to require that people wear masks in public spaces.
Among them was Dr. Natasha Bhuyan of Phoenix. The family medicine doctor said marketing campaigns and tweets from the governor’s office urging the use of masks aren’t going to cut it.
“We’ve been educating the public this entire time, and clearly it hasn’t been effective,” Bhuyan said. “The accurate scientific information is just not reaching people. It’s a public health tenet: When you make things mandatory, you see results.”
She said she believes if immediate action isn’t taken, Arizona could see hospital ICUs and ventilators reach capacity as early as July.
Ducey has suggested the use of masks, but he so far has declined to issue a mandate. He posted messages on Twitter and Facebook Wednesday urging the use of masks. The messages said “Protect yourself. Protect others. Help contain the spread of #COVID19. Wear a mask. #MaskUpAZ.”
During a news briefing last week where he pushed back on questions about a mask mandate, the governor insisted that the state’s hospitals, while filling up, had the capacity to treat any expected surge in virus patients.
Those comments drew a rebuke from Sinema in an interview with KTAR on Tuesday.
“I don’t think it makes sense to design your policy based on whether or not there are enough hospital beds for people to die in,” Sinema said on the “Gaydos and Chad Show.” “I think we should be designing our policy about how do we reduce the spread, so fewer people are dying, fewer people are in the hospitals and fewer people are contracting the virus. That should be our focus. And we can do that while also safely reopening our businesses and our economy.”