PHOENIX (AP) — Pima County can continue to enforce its face-mask mandates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in spite of an executive order issued by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey that bars local orders, according to an informal opinion issued by Arizona’s attorney general Tuesday.
However, the opinion issued by Attorney General Mark Brnovich's office said the governor could order the state health department to issue rules barring local mandates or ignore the opinion and try to enforce his executive order on his own.
Three Republican lawmakers sought the opinion late last month after Pima County's health department said it would continue to enforce its mask mandate despite Ducey's new order barring local rules. Ducey cited lower COVID-19 cases and rising vaccination rates to end most business restrictions and revoke the ability of cities and counties to issue mask mandates.
The opinion comes on the same day that Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said she would keep the city's mask mandate in place.
“I stand with the majority of the Phoenix City Council who agree that the governor’s unilateral decision to order cities to abandon mask requirements is a case of significant government overreach,” Gallego said in a statement. “The governor’s authority is not without limits.”
Ducey has said local mask mandates were rarely enforced. But Pima County health officials argued they were instrumental in getting people to follow the recommendations of public health experts, who said masks are instrumental in limiting the spread of the virus. Flagstaff and Tucson also kept their mandates in place.
The opinion written by Brnovich's solicitor general, Beau Roysden, said the governor's executive orders are based on a section of Arizona law outside of the health code, which Pima County is using to enforce its mask mandate. That's why it is possible for the state health department to issue rules, although those can take time to adopt.
Ducey's spokesman, C.J. Karamargin, said his office is reviewing the informal opinion, what impact it has or authority it may assert.
"But given local governments’ inability, ineffectiveness and unwillingness to enforce mask ordinances when they were most necessarily, we believe it is largely inconsequential,” Karamargin said.
Attorney general opinions, formal or not, do carry the force of law.
Tuesday's developments came as Arizona's daily rate of additional confirmed COVID-19 cases continued to creep upward while the daily rate of related deaths is down.
The state reported 570 additional confirmed cases and six deaths, increasing the pandemic totals to 845,480 cases and 16,996 deaths, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.
According to Johns Hopkins University data, the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases increased over the past two weeks, rising from 479.4 on March 21 to 631.1 on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the rolling average of daily deaths dropped from 27.4 to 12.2 during the same period.
The number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations continued to hover in the 500 to 600 range, with 546 patients occupying inpatient beds as of Monday, up from 516 on Sunday, the state's dashboard indicated.
The number of people in Arizona who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine rose to nearly 2.4 million, or 33% of the population, according to the dashboard.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Associated Press reporter Paul Davenport contributed.