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FLORENCE — Despite receiving comments in favor of face masks that outnumbered opponents more than 3-to-1, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors declined to mandate masks at last week’s meeting.

Rather, the supervisors June 24 unanimously passed a resolution encouraging face coverings in public in unincorporated Pinal County. Cities and towns, which may be under conflicting directives issued by their officials, are not affected.

The board considered, but ultimately discarded, language that would have mandated face coverings for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been in close contact with an infected person. Also deleted was a requirement for people accessing Pinal County government services to wear face coverings, with exceptions.

Chairman Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, said the Sheriff’s Office has said it would be “absolutely overwhelmed” if masks were mandated, and he could not support the language.

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, said just 0.04% of Pinal County’s population is hospitalized with COVID-19, and the board has “very little solid data” on the effectiveness of masks. He said with individual freedom comes responsibility, and 99% of people are responsible and will practice hygiene and wear masks where appropriate.

“When government tries to mandate these things, things get worse,” Miller said. “There’s not a right answer. None of us will walk away from this dais today and be cheered.”

Vice Chairman Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, spoke up in favor of the discarded language but ultimately joined his colleagues in voting for the resolution. “It’s better than nothing, but I don’t think we go far enough,” Rios said. “I guess I’m siding with the health care professionals and experts who do believe the mandatory use of face masks is the way to go.”

Dr. Shauna McIsaac, Pinal County public health director, told the board last week, “I strongly believe that face coverings should be mandated for everybody in Pinal County in order to protect the health of the public. We have one public and it’s not debatable. There’s a lot of scientific evidence that wearing masks helps prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We do not have a vaccine,” McIsaac continued. “The only way we can protect ourselves is essentially by protecting each other. I strongly believe that mandating face coverings is essential for that, along with 6-foot physical distancing, hand washing, all the other mitigation measures.”

But she said she also opposed the language the board ultimately discarded, because it implies that an infected person could go out in public with a mask. Instead, she said the public health advice is an exposed person should quarantine for 14 days.

Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, referred to a May 28 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that said wearing masks is “symbolic” and offers little if any protection outside a health care facility.

“So we do have contradictory information that’s out there,” House said. “I don’t like the idea of saying that it’s indisputable truth that a mask does help, when there are other articles saying that it doesn’t help.”

Supervisor Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, who participated in the meeting by phone, said for him it all goes back to the personal responsibility of the individual. “Anytime that we as government take that responsibility away from the individual, we’re infringing upon … we’re creating a society where they do nothing but look at the government.”

Including the June 19 meeting when the board first considered such a resolution, the board received 424 written public comments in favor of face coverings and 115 comments opposed to masks.

The board also heard from six people who came in person to speak on the subject June 24. Three were for masks and three were against.

A San Tan Valley man said mandating masks would give everyone the opportunity to “get out and about” and back in the economy. But an Apache Junction woman said “this is too much drama; everybody knows what’s best for themselves.”

She said a restrictive resolution would open up the board to lawsuits.

Rios read a message he received from a retired registered nurse in Oracle. She wrote that her immune system is compromised from cancer treatment and she wears a mask, but it’s better if others she encounters are wearing masks as well.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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