Governor Doug Ducey

Governor Doug Ducey rescinded local mask mandates in March, but masks will still be required in schools and City of Scottsdale buildings and facilities, including the city’s libraries.

Though Gov. Doug Ducey has rescinded local mask mandates, data from Scottsdale Police shows there was little enforcement of those mandates anyway even before his decision.

Data obtained by the Progress show police issued just three citations for mask mandate violations between June 18, 2020, – the day Scottsdale’s mask mandate took effect - and March 14.

A department spokesman said Scottsdale Police took an “education first” approach.

“When our officers respond to calls of mask mandate violations, we have a duty to educate the individuals involved about the current law,” Sgt. Ben Hoster said.

“The violators are given a verbal warning and an opportunity to comply with the law. If these individuals continue to refuse to comply with the mask mandate, they can be cited.

Ducey first gave local municipalities the power to issue mask mandates last June.

Scottsdale became one of the first cities in the state to act on that authority when former Mayor Jim Lane issued a mandate on June 18. Maricopa County supervisors adopted a similar mandate countywide the next day.

Lane eventually allowed Scottsdale’s mandate to lapse in September in favor of the county’s regulations, but new Mayor David Ortega reinstated the city’s mandate when he took office in January.

Though Ducey took away the power to impose mask mandates, Scottsdale’s will remain in effect in city buildings and facilities for the foreseeable future, according to a statement issued by the city

“I look forward to the day when we can declare ‘all clear’ and remove all restrictions – but that day is not today,” Ortega said. “While we have seen encouraging progress, and more and more people have received the vaccine, COVID remains a concern.

“We will continue to exercise caution. Mask Up Arizona is a successful campaign and remains the best advice – keep your distance from others, and mask up when you cannot.”

Ducey’s executive order did not impact schools.

“Please note that yesterday’s order did not address the mitigation efforts that are required by public and charter schools and did nothing to undo what we, as a school district are required to do...with regard to wearing face masks by students and staff while at school,” read a letter to parents by Scottsdale Unified School District on March 26.

Ducey’s order lifted mask mandates on private businesses, putting the onus on them to optionally enforce one if they choose.

In the wake of the decision, crowds have flooded back to Old Town Scottsdale, where social media posts show maskless throngs of young people have filled many clubs in the area to pre-pandemic levels.

The mandate’s reversal comes as COVID-19 case numbers – which had been on the decline – could again be on the rise.

“Our seven-day trailing average has increased a little bit,” said Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.

“That says that we’re at the very minimum stabilized; I think we’ll have to keep watching it to see if that becomes a solid upward trend,” he added.

In Scottsdale, new cases per 100,000 residents and positive new test results were up recently in three of the city’s 10 ZIP codes, according to Maricopa County.

The largest spike was in 85259, which had 82 new cases per 100,000 from March 21 to March 27, up from 43 the week prior. Positivity also jumped from 3.11 to 5.7 percent.

LaBaer called Ducey’s decision premature.

“From my position, there are no biomedical indicators that would suggest that now is a good time to reduce mitigation efforts,” he said, adding:

“I think from the current position where we’re at, roughly at least half of our population is still either not vaccinated or has never had COVID-19, so they remain at risk of COVID-19 infection, and we know that the incidents of bad outcomes is still high.”

LaBaer said that means there is still a need to practice mitigation, including mask wearing and avoiding crowds.

“Behavior in public affects everyone...when you wear a mask, if the other people are not wearing masks, you’re certainly at higher risk of getting infected than if both parties are wearing masks,” he said.

But others have questioned the true impact the mask mandates had.

Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association, said he doesn’t believe the rescinded mandate will be the driving force behind case increases because the mandates were ignored by many and had little enforcement.

“There hasn’t been any enforcement to speak of so when it comes to bars, restaurants and nightclubs...I don’t think there is going to be an explosive impact,” he said.

LaBaer, too, acknowledged that enforcement impacted the effectiveness of mitigation measures, noting that Arizona faced a massive surge in cases over the winter when the mandates were still in effect.

Humble said he believes an increase in cases will likely be driven by new COVID-19 variants.

Dr. Efrim Lim, a virologist at ASU, said several variants have emerged in Arizona.

He said his team recently identified a new variant with mutations that have shown to reduce antibody response in lab tests, though researchers still don’t know how those lab tests translate into real-world scenarios.

Humble said the mandates helped businesses that wanted to enforce mask use avoid uncomfortable confrontations with customers.

“There are places where owners wanted to do the right thing, and used the government’s requirement as the heavy; now, they can’t use that, so they have to decide ‘I’m going to fight my customers, so I’ll just give up,” he said.

Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the main reason restrictions were imposed was to avoid 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, and Christ said many of the people who are most at risk, meaning the elderly, already have been vaccinated.

Humble agreed that vaccination rate among seniors is good news.

But he said Ducey should have left the mandates in place for another six to eight weeks, at least until a larger percentage of young people are vaccinated because “they are transmitting it to others who are dying.”

LaBaer also noted that young people, though not in the same risk category as the elderly, are still vulnerable.

“It’s worth remembering that a quarter of the people who died in Arizona were not 65-plus and over; in fact, they were middle-aged and younger,” he said.

Humble said surveys of young adults conducted by students he is working with suggest placing vaccination sites at popular spots could increase vaccination rates, because many respondents were worried about convenience, not the vaccine itself.

“What they found with young adults is it’s not vaccine hesitancy...it needs to be easy to access, but if you have a chance to get vaccinated at (downtown club Bottled Blonde), they’d probably do it,” he said.