PIMA COUNTY, Ariz. (KGUN) — With omicron accounting for an estimated 73% of US COVID-19 cases, Pima County voted to impose a new indoor face mask requirement Tuesday.
The vote passed 3-2, with Rex Scott and Steve Christy voting against the measure.
The order requires masks to be worn in indoor public spaces where people can not stay at least six-feet apart, Supervisor Steve Christy opposed the measure, noting a state law that forbids businesses from enforcing a mask mandate.
He said, “Why can't this just be optional, as maybe a health advisory from the Health Department as opposed to an official mandate that has no enforcement, no teeth.”
Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher said she hoped the mask order would still have educational value.
“We've always heard the references to other laws passed in the nation previously on seatbelt enforcement for example. People don't necessarily stop an individual to check on the seatbelt, but we do know that having it be a law has gotten considerably towards encouraging the use of seatbelts. Our hope again is that that this will encourage people to be masked during this very difficult time without the penalties."
The County does not plan any enforcement efforts by County staff. Scott said he supports the idea of a mask mandate but voted against it because he fears masks have become so politicized that employees of private companies will be abused for attempting to require masks in a business.
Scott said, “Masks however, have become a divisive symbol of how we have failed as Americans to unite behind a common set of facts about this virus and how to confront it. That failure attests to why we lead the world in the number of infections and deaths even though we are the richest nation in history, and one of the most innovative.”
In public comments before the vote, several members of the public criticized mask mandates as oppressive and ineffective. Others said masks are a valuable way to reduce the spread of COVID. Representatives of Banner University Medical Center and Tucson Medical Center urged passing a mask mandate.
They fear hospitals will be overwhelmed by a new wave of COVID patients. The County mask order is set to run at least through February 28, 2022.
Gov. Doug Ducey tweeted his opposition to a county mask mandate, calling it a violation of state law.
Last week, the first case of the omicron variant was detected in Pima County. The first cases of omicron reported in the state were in Yavapai County in mid-December. Omicron cases showed up in the Phoenix-area earlier this month.
The first known case of omicron was confirmed in the United States Dec. 1, according to the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC).
In November, the county reported 15,851 cases of COVID-19 compared to last year, which reported 13,933 cases, according to the memo. That's nearly a 2,000 case difference.
As far as hospital occupancy, this is the highest COVID-19 ICU occupancy since winter 2020, Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher says in a memo to Supervisors. As of Dec. 19, hospitals reported 117 COVID-19 positive individuals occupying 39% of ICU beds, and 33% in Pima County.
As far as schools, since July, 305 schools reported 8,022 cases, which resulted in 237 outbreaks and 131 classroom closures, according to the memo.
"This second winter surge in cases is again severely straining our healthcare resources and requiring continued investment of Pima County resources to bolster vaccination, testing and other mitigation measures. Many in the community are looking to the Board of Supervisors and the County Health Department for help. New state laws and other state actions have limited the tools we have to respond to the requests for action to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19," Lesher says in the memo.
Vaccinations and boosters are still highly encouraged to help prevent infection and decrease the transmission of COVID-19. So far, in Pima County, 1,549,180 doses have been administered, 725,171 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 661,758 residents are fully vaccinated with two doses, Lesher says in the memo. As of Dec. 20, in Arizona, 9,556,480 doses have been administered, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.