The Nosh Café in Ahwatukee

Masks will continue to be the order of the day at local public schools, as they were earlier this month when Barefoot Pools and The Nosh Café in Ahwatukee delivered treats to all schools and district departments as a thank you to staff who have been working in person all year in support of onsite students. The two businesses were part of another effort by a program called Kyrene Values Teachers, Students and Staff. Businesses interested in joining Joelle Green at jgreen@kyrene.org.

Students, staff and any visitor to a Kyrene or Tempe Union campus must still wear masks and Ahwatukee businesses can still require customers to wear them.

But the state’s top health official said Friday there’s no reason to continue to limit business occupancy or prohibit large group gatherings or for the state to require customers to wear masks because Arizona hospitals now have plenty of space.

Dr. Cara Christ said the main reason that restrictions were imposed and bars were closed entirely was the fear of overwhelming the state’s health care system with COVID-19 patients.

Now, she said, the use of hospital and intensive-care beds is way down. More to the point, Christ said many of the people who are most at risk, meaning the elderly, already have been vaccinated.

The health chief acknowledged that some businesses are not following her advice that, despite dissolution of the gubernatorial orders, they should continue to enforce mask use and to maintain social distancing. 

There even were reports of at least one bar promoting the idea that customers are now free to crowd in.

But that, Christ said, is no reason to continue to make that illegal. She said individuals now need to assess their own risk of severe complications.

“Hopefully, there weren’t a lot of our older Arizonans at those bars,’’ she said, the kind of folks who are more likely to get seriously ill.

Christ also pointed out that businesses remain free to enforce mask and social distancing requirements. And she is suggesting they do that.

Christ’s press conference came the day after Gov. Doug Ducey declared the COVID-19 pandemic under control in Arizona and abolished remaining limits on businesses and public gatherings.

He also nullified the ability of local communities to maintain their own mask mandates.

While Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego issued a statement criticizing Ducey’s move, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said her community will not comply, essentially telling Ducey that he’ll have to go to court.

The governor eliminated any remaining requirements to limit the number of customers to ensure social distancing and to require that staff and patrons wear masks.

Instead, everything what used to be a mandate is now simply a “recommendation.’’ That means business can – but are not required – to have their own mask mandates and to refuse service to anyone who does not comply.

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.

Ducey acknowledged that there have been nearly 940,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state, including 16,874 deaths. But he also cited the fact that the number of new cases has been declining for 10 weeks and hospitalizations are at their lowest level since the end of September.

At the same time, he said, more than 1.9 million Arizonans have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, with almost 1.2 million who are now fully inoculated. And he said the Centers for Disease Control ranks Arizona as among the best states in getting the vaccine to those who are most vulnerable.

None of this affects schools which have been reopening with requirements for teachers and students to wear masks. A spokesman for the Department of Health Services said those orders remain in effect.

Both Kyrene and Tempe Union immediately reiterated their districts’ intentions to keep their own mask mandate in effect. Indeed, it was made part of the districts’ dress codes.

“It’s a key part of our health mitigation plan,” Tempe Union spokeswoman Megan Sterling said. “I don’t see that changing in the immediate future, especially in light of Hoffman’s statement.”

Kyrene issued a statement that said in part: “Face coverings must still be worn on all Kyrene school campuses, buses and facilities.”

It also said Kyrene officials are “examining the new executive order’s guidance on gatherings, to determine what, if any, impact there may be on activities such as Athletics and Community Education before/after school programming. As a reminder, the District is constantly reviewing mitigation plans to ensure alignment with CDC, state and county recommendations.”

Gallego said Ducey ignores the fact that the surge in June was curbed only when the governor relaxed his own opposition to masks and agreed to let communities impose their own mandates, many of which did.

“To abandon precautions now is like spiking the ball on the 5-yard line,’’ she said in a prepared statement, pointing out the new variants of the virus.

“The risk of another surge is real,’’ Gallego continued. “The governor clearly cares a lot less about the people of Arizona than his political future.’’

On Friday, Christ brushed aside questions about whether the new order undermines their ability to gain compliance as customers could argue that the governor has said it’s OK to go maskless.

“They can extend that,’’ she said, and enforce things like mask mandates at the door in exactly the same way. “They do have the authority to be able to require those types of mitigation strategies.’’

While Christ said hospital capacity was a key factor, the health director conceded she and the governor did not consult with any of their top officials. 

Several of the state’s major hospital chains released a statement calling Ducey’s move to jettison mandatory distancing and mask requirements as premature.

“A downward trend is not synonymous with the elimination of the virus,’’ they said in a joint statement.

Christ did not dispute that contention.

“We could see another spike in cases,’’ she said. But Christ said that’s not the metric that drove the original decisions to impose restrictions. And she said it should not be the metric to decide whether to lift them.

“Really, what we were trying to prevent is an overwhelming of our hospitals and our health care systems,’’ she said. That also is the reason that health care workers and those at the highest risk of developing complications from the virus -- and needing hospitalization -- were among the first to get the vaccine.

“We’ve got higher vaccination rates in those vulnerable populations, which is going to keep our hospitalizations down,’’ she said. “The severe outcomes are really what we’re trying to prevent, those hospitalizations and those deaths.’’

Christ also said she had made the decision that Arizona has to return to a point where people have to make their own decisions about the risk the virus poses to their own health. 

She said that’s no different than any other disease, like the flu, where her department makes various recommendations but ultimately leaves it up to individuals to assess their own health risks.

“It’s really about that personal responsibility,’’ she said.

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