Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday barred Arizona cities and counties from mandating masks in public places and businesses and rolled back statewide requirements that businesses require customers to wear masks and maintain physical distance from each other.
Ducey’s latest COVID-19 executive order comes as cases in Arizona continue to decline and vaccinations continue to rise. In announcing the changes to how the state is attempting to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, Ducey noted that more than 3 million doses of COVID vaccine have been administered in the state and there have been 10 weeks of declining cases.
In all, the Arizona Department of Health Services reports that 26.8% of Arizonans — about 1.9 million people — have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Only 16.8% of people are fully vaccinated. Public health experts say herd immunity requires at least 70% of a population to be vaccinated.
The Thursday executive order rescinds six different executive orders which were put in place at the start of the pandemic in Arizona.
“In Arizona, we never did a shutdown, so it’s impossible to have a grand reopening,” Ducey said in a press release about the order. “Today, we are in a different spot, and we are also a lot smarter. I’m confident Arizona’s businesses and citizens will continue to practice the fundamentals and act responsibly as we gradually get back to normal.”
One of those rescinded orders was from June 2020, when Ducey allowed counties, cities and towns to implement mask mandates. In a press statement, the governor said he was “phasing out” those local mandates, though the executive order immediately rescinds all of them.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend all Americans “wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household.”
The executive order also changes requirements that businesses require all employees and customers to wear masks and enforce social distancing and turns those measures into merely recommendations. Previously, the state asserted the authority to shut down businesses that did not comply.
Ducey also said in his order that businesses that choose to require masks can refuse to serve patrons who won’t comply.
And Arizona bars can now resume regular operations and operate at full capacity.
Another effect of the executive order is to remove restrictions on public events and gatherings of more than 50 people.
“It’s unwise, but not catastrophic,” Will Humble, Director of the Arizona Public Health Association said about Ducey’s decision. “A requirement that is not enforced is basically a recommendation anyways.”
Humble, a former director of the Department of Health Services and a fierce critic of Ducey’s handling of the pandemic, said he felt that the decision to allow large gatherings should have happened once more people within the 18-30 range had been vaccinated, as they have been the population that has been infected the most with the virus and the most likely to attend large events.
The state only made vaccines available for those 16 and older on Wednesday.
“That’s where the chains of transmission start,” Humble said, “and they end with a senior who has never stepped foot in a nightclub in their entire life.”
Arizonans between the ages of 20-44 make up nearly 44% of all COVID cases and only 19% of total hospitalizations whereas those 55 and up make up nearly 65% of all hospitalizations and only 25% of all COVID cases.
The good news, Humble said, is that he doesn’t believe there will be another surge in cases — though he does think cases will likely plateau and take longer to completely go away, meaning it will take longer to reach herd immunity.
Some city leaders have also decried the decision. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said Ducey’s order “directly contradicts the best scientists in the field.”
“The horrible surge last June was only curbed by masking – when the Governor finally allowed cities to do it,” Gallego said on Twitter. “To abandon precautions now is like spiking the ball on the 5-yard line.”
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero echoed the sentiments of her colleague in Phoenix, saying on Twitter that the city will “continue to follow the advice of our public health experts #MaskUp.” Romero also stated she intends to continue implementing the city’s mask mandate after consulting with the city attorney saying that the city has local authority to do so.
Meanwhile, a small business advocacy group praised Ducey’s action.
“As we now see objective measures showing clear virus mitigation coupled with the broad availability of the vaccine, it is a welcome sign that the business requirements are transitioning to recommendations,” said Chad Heinrich, who heads up the Arizona chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “Small business owners will continue to act responsibly.”
The Centers for Disease Control gave Arizona praise for its work on getting vaccines to vulnerable communities, but an analysis of state and county level data by Arizona Mirror found inequities still exist within vaccine distribution that the state is trying to address.
A public health order issued by state public health officials requiring masks be worn by students, teachers and staff in Arizona schools remains in effect.
As of March 25, there have been over 837,000 cases of COVID in Arizona and 16,000 deaths. On Thursday, Arizona reported 138 new cases and 32 deaths.
***UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional comments and information.