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Arizona Gov. Ducey Eliminates Mask Requirements And Other Pandemic Restrictions

Declaring the pandemic effectively over in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey is abolishing all the restrictions that remain on businesses and public gatherings.

And he is eliminating the ability of local communities to maintain their own mask mandates.

In a new executive order Thursday, the governor abolished all the limits on how businesses need to operate. That dissolves any remaining requirements to limit the number of customers to ensure social distancing and to require that staff and patrons wear masks.

Instead, everything that used to be a mandate is now simply a "recommendation.'' That means business can — but are not required — to have mask mandates.

That also means that all the music venues and bars that have been shuttered are free to open their doors again. And here, too, while there is a suggestion to maintain social distancing and masks, that is no longer a requirement.

In a statement, Ducey cited the more than 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccinations administered and weeks-long trends in declining cases as evidence it was time to scale back his previous mitigation orders.

“I want to thank the local leaders who supported these efforts with their own measures, and the businesses who implemented them. Today, we are in a different spot, and we are also a lot smarter,” the governor said. “I’m confident Arizona’s businesses and citizens will continue to practice the fundamentals and act responsibly as we gradually get back to normal."

But Ducey is not ending the emergency he declared slightly more than a year ago. That gives him the right to reimpose any of the restrictions any time he wants.

Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, also confirmed the state health department guidelines requiring masks in all K-12 schools remains in effect.

The announcement caught many local officials by surprise. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, one of several mayors who’ve butted heads with Ducey over his handling of the pandemic, said in a tweet the governor’s decision “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. “To abandon precautions now is like spiking the ball on the 5-yard line.”

Health experts have warned it's too soon to return to normal. The more contagious and more deadly B.1.1.7 variant is spreading in Arizona, and the state is still millions of vaccinations short of estimated thresholds for achieving herd immunity.

“The governor clearly cares a lot less about the people of Arizona than his political future,” Gallego said.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, another critic of Ducey’s COVID-19 response, echoed Gallego, calling the governor’s latest actions premature, and warned that ending local mask requirements could do more harm to the economy than good if it leads to an uptick in community transmission of the coronavirus.

Romero also indicated she’ll test the limits of Ducey’s order.

“Our city attorney has advised me that we have clear local authority to continue implementing our city mask mandate,” Romero said in a statement. “As mayor, I have no intention of removing our local mask wearing requirement.

Arizona Public Health Association Director Will Humble agreed that Ducey’s rollback came far too soon. But Humble said he doubts lifting requirements for businesses will have catastrophic consequences.

“I don’t think you’re going to see that restaurants look a whole lot different today than they looked last week, because there was almost no enforcement to begin with and businesses were doing what they think that their customers were expecting them to do,” Humble said. “Some businesses may change their behavior. Some might have actually been doing some distancing, and they’ll drop that. But I don’t see the changes in behavior being something that’s going to end up really amplifying the virus out of control.”

Steve Chucri, the Arizona Restaurant Association president, says it’s not bad timing because vaccine distribution pace and eligibility is expanding quickly.

“This is about progress not perfection, as how we respond to COVID-19. But I do think today, for restaurants, it’s a step in the right direction to help us achieve what we want to achieve and that is to serve our customers," Chucri said.

He says he expects not many restaurants will get rid of safety protocols overnight, and it will come down the comfort of each establishment and its customers.

Conservative lawmakers, some who’ve clamored to pass bills ending Ducey’s emergency declaration, praised his latest order lifting the restrictions. Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican who’s led efforts to overturn Ducey’s authority, said the governor’s announcement was “better late than never.”

House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) said the continued rollout of vaccine resources and the state’s recent expansion of vaccine eligibility meant the time was ripe for a change.

“The governor has made the right and responsible decision to continue moving Arizona forward and ensure that our economy and our people will again thrive,” Bowers said in a statement.

→  Get The Latest News On COVID-19 In Arizona 

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.