Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane rescinded the city’s mask mandate last week, going against the advice of public health authorities and medical professionals.
People must still wear masks in most public places in Scottsdale under a similar mandate issued by the county Board of Supervisors that remains active.
Scottsdale became one of the first cities in Arizona to implement a mask requirement shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey gave cities that authority in June.
Lane lifted the mandate on Sept. 21 because the state has seen “a significant decline” in COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations.
“When the original face covering order went into effect, our hospital system was in crisis,” Lane said in a statement. “The alarming growth in cases across the county was pushing hospital capacity to the limit, and Scottsdale’s mask requirement was part of efforts in communities across the state to get that situation under control. It worked.”
Lane said it remained each individual’s “civic responsibility” to protect others by practicing good hygiene and continuing to wear masks around others.
The mayor faced a swift backlash from public health experts and others in the medical community who questioned why he would end a policy that he admits was working.
Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, told the Progress he found Lane’s decision “puzzling,” calling masks a low-cost, effective tool to fight the virus.
“And so for an elected official to get rid of the single most effective tool that has virtually no cost, and then jeopardize…the ability of kids to go back to in-person school and possibly even jeopardizing another shutdown for some of the bars and nightclubs, and maybe even restaurants, to me just doesn’t make any scientific sense, political sense or economic sense,” Humble said.
HonorHealth, Scottsdale’s largest employer, sent a letter to the city opposing the mandate’s removal, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that masks are still the primary way to stop COVID-19 spread.
“The virus is still very prevalent in our community, the rate of immunity is low, and it is predicted that we will see another surge later this year based on patterns observed in other parts of the world,” the letter state. “While everyone desires a “return to normal,” at this point there is still a substantial risk posed by COVID-19 and this is not the time to let our guard down.”
Scottsdale City Council will not vote to adopt its own mask requirement.
Councilwoman Linda Milhaven cited the HonorHealth letter at a City Council meeting on Sept. 22 and moved to discuss a mandatory mask ordinance at a future meeting.
But, Milhaven’s motion failed on a 4-3 vote, with Lane, Councilwomen Suzanne Klapp and Kathy Littlefield and Councilman Guy Phillips – a longtime critic of the mandate – voting against the measure.
Council narrowly approves a motion by Councilwoman Solange Whitehead to receive an informational update at a future meeting on COVID-19 data and what safety measures are already in place at the state and county level, though no action would be taken during that discussion.
The county mandate requires individuals to wear masks in most public places, though the Scottsdale order carried a stiffer financial penalty for non-compliance.
The county mandate carries a fine of $50.
But, according to Scottsdale Police records, the department only cited one individual for non-compliance between June 19 and July 23.
Medical professionals said the removal of Scottsdale’s order could create confusion and send the wrong message.
“Efforts to remove theses mandates sends the wrong message to our community and to those who provide care for our community members – our physicians and our nurses,” Honor Health said.
Lane told the Progress that unlike in June, the state now has effective rules in place to prevent irresponsible operations at places like bars and nightclubs that were blamed for contributing to the spike over the summer.
The Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce also opposed the mandate’s removal.
“Removal of a face covering mandate could have a negative repercussion on the health and wellbeing of our community and could potentially offset the progress made in combating the COVID-19 virus,” according to the statement.
According to the most recent data from the county, Scottsdale saw a slight decrease in COVID-19 cases week over week.
The county data showed that, on average, Scottsdale ZIP codes saw cases per 100,000 drop from 38.47 from Sept. 6-12 to 34.28 from Sept. 13-19.
But, 85253, 85251, 85260, 85262, and 85266 saw cases per 100,000 residents rise week over week. The percent positivity rate in the city also rose from 3.5 to 3.86 percent over that span.
Lane’s decision received a mixed reaction from the two candidates running to replace him in the Nov. 3 election.
Former Councilwoman Lisa Borowsky echoed Lane’s comments about personal responsibility and called Scottsdale’s mandate unnecessary due to the county’s similar mandate that is still in place.
“Generally speaking, I oppose duplicative, inconsistent or unnecessary government regulations,” Borowsky said. “In this case, the Scottsdale order was redundant given that Maricopa County has one in place which, necessarily, applies to Scottsdale residents.”
Borowsky said the county is in a better position to issue public health mandates because they have a public health department unlike the city.
“Notwithstanding the status of an order, Scottsdale residents are smart enough to understand the medical experts, wear masks when needed and socially distance in public,” Borowksy said.
David Ortega said the mask mandate was working and that Lane’s action sends a mixed message to residents.
“It is confusing for Scottsdale residents to rescind the mask mandate when the county mandate is still in place…We can see that in the reductions of cases, lowering the positivity rate and relieving the pressure on our hospitals,” Ortega said. “Masks are the best way to have some level of normalcy.
Ortega, too, encouraged Scottsdale residents to continue wearing masks.
Lane’s action received a mixed reaction from the candidates running for council.
Phillips agreed with the mayor’s move.
“In light of today’s volatile political environment, it took courage for the mayor to rescind the mandate but it was the right thing to do as the numbers clearly show there is no emergency and the economy is suffering greatly,” Phillips said.
But others disagreed.
“Lifting the mask mandate at this time is ill advised,” Betty Janik said. “We are just getting the children back to school and there are reports of outbreaks in Europe. Keeping the mandate for 4 more weeks would get us through the initial return of students to the classroom and give us time to evaluate the situation in Europe.”
John Little said he would like to see the mandate remain in place and that Council should meet with health professionals from HonorHealth and Mayo Clinic.“I would like to see the city council direct city staff to meet with representatives from these health care providers and provide a policy recommendation based on data and science,” Little said. “It is time to move beyond having the mask issue manifest as a cultural red herring and dog whistle and move it to where it belongs into the public health arena.”
Tom Durham said, “I’m not sure I understand the Mayor’s logic. His view is that we can ease up because we are winning the fight against COVID, but I wouldn’t want to see a second spike the way we did in June and July. So I don’t think we should let up. The County mandate remains in effect, and I imagine most people will continue to comply, as they have been doing.”
Tammy Caputi said she agrees with Lane’s statement that it remains every person’s civic duty to protect themselves and others.
“The county mandate remains in place and I support the effort to keep our community safe,” Caputi said. “Balancing individual freedoms with the common good is always a challenge… My priority is getting my kids back to school and people back to work as quickly and safely as possible.”
Becca Linnig did not respond to a request for comment.