In punting a mask mandate to mayors, Ducey avoids Trump’s ire

June 18, 2020 8:22 am

Gov. Doug Ducey updates reporters on COVID-19 during a news conference in Phoenix June 17, 2020. Photo by Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic | Pool photo

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the terrifying realization of what the last few weeks mean for Arizonans, Gov. Doug Ducey continues to do what has become a hallmark of his time in office: lead from behind.

More specifically, he’s letting other elected officials take the lead on how best to protect the people of the state, refusing to institute a statewide mandate that people wear masks in public and instead authorizing mayors and city councils and boards of supervisors to make those decisions — and take the heat that may come from them.

For Ducey, this is the best of both worlds: Millions of Arizonans are likely to now be more protected when they’re in public places and he won’t draw the ire of Donald Trump, who has made clear just how much he despises people wearing masks.

Clearly, someone needs to be making tough decisions. Arizona has seen a pronounced spike in new COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks, with total cases nearing 41,000 on Wednesday and the two highest number of new cases reported in one day being notched Tuesday and Wednesday.

It was only a week ago that Ducey defiantly declared that this public health crisis was too damn serious for those same mayors and city councils and boards of supervisors to handle, and that he had things under control.

“I will continue to say that the government closest to the people is best — except in a global pandemic,” Ducey retorted when a reporter at a June 11 press briefing asked him whether the government closest to the people was more responsive to the people and more able to meet their needs, because those leaders know their communities better.

Statewide action and policies are needed, he said, to provide “clarity and consistency.”

“We want to reduce the confusion that’s happened across the state,” he said. 

That, of course, changed Wednesday. When faced with a mounting demand that he exhibit strong leadership and take the minimal step of requiring people wear masks when they are in public, he balked rather than upset the president who stridently opposes masks because it might make people realize COVID-19 is both real and dangerous. Suddenly, it’s OK if the state’s 15 counties and 91 cities each set their own requirements on who must wear masks and when and how those directives will be enforced.

To be clear: Ducey deserves credit for even doing that much, though his shift Wednesday tacitly acknowledges just how badly he dropped the ball. That we are three months into a pandemic and only now having a serious discussion about how masks are an essential tool in combating the spread of a highly contagious virus is an abject failure.

He deserves credit for showing up in a mask and demonstrating good behavior, living up to the leadership-by-example message he is fond of delivering. 

And he deserves credit for (mostly) abandoning the caveat he repeatedly leaned on last week, that a mask was only needed when people can’t stay six feet apart.

But let’s not pretend that any of those are the leadership we need right now, as we sit in mid-June with the intensity of this illness we’ve seen this month. Those were the things he should have done a month ago — if not earlier — when he abandoned his “slow and steady” approach to managing the pandemic so he could rush to re-open businesses that had been shut down to limit community spread.

And that’s a mistake he still won’t admit to, insisting that the state was “squarely and safely” meeting the criteria to lift the stay-at-home order. The ASU researchers who predicted this spike in cases that we’re seeing released a report Wednesday rebutting Ducey: The state didn’t qualify for re-opening, and shouldn’t have done so when it did.

“Different people can look at data in different ways,” Ducey said about that conclusion, dismissing any possibility that he rushed the state into reopening to quell a mutiny building among legislative Republicans.

Ducey has presented himself as a bold leader. But as we’ve seen time and again throughout his time in office — teacher raises, children’s health insurance and school vocational training leap to mind — he is frequently late to support important and popular issues, adding his voice only after others have taken the risk. And, if given the chance, he’ll abdicate his authority and let others make the tough (but necessary) decisions for him.

That he did so when people’s lives were literally hanging in the balance will be his legacy.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.