ASU requires masks; GOP lawmakers slam K-12 schools that do

PHOENIX (AP) — Stark differences in approaches to surging Arizona coronavirus cases continued to appear Wednesday as more medical providers and education institutions announced new measures to stop COVID-19 from spreading and Republican state lawmakers urged the governor to punish local school districts that require students to wear masks.

The developments come as the number of daily cases has risen in the past two months to levels not seen since the state’s winter peak began to ebb in February. Hospitals are warning they may again face patient surges that stress their systems.

Twenty-six of the 47 Republicans in the Legislature want GOP Gov. Doug Ducey to initiate legal action and withhold federal education funds from school districts imposing mask mandates in violation of a provision in the state budget that does not take effect until Sept. 29. They also want Ducey to award temporary private school vouchers to parents of students attending schools requiring masks.

The GOP lawmakers, led by Rep. Jake Hoffman of Queen Creek, released a statement saying the districts’ refusal to follow the newly enacted law “must not be allowed to stand.”

“It borders on anarchy and destabilizes the very foundation of our society to have local governments effectively refusing to comply with the law,” the statement said.

The budget bans K-12 schools from requiring students to wear masks and will be retroactive to July 1 once the law takes effect. But at least 10 public school districts are openly defying that law, with school boards saying they are acting to protect children. Outbreaks of the virus have forced multiple school districts to either close classrooms or order children to quarantine.

Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said the governor’s office has not yet reviewed the GOP lawmakers’ request but has been discussing how to address school districts that require masks, which he opposes. He has called the school actions unenforceable.

“The governor is anti-mandate, but pro-vaccine and pro-parental decision on masks and other measures,” Karamargin said. “Parents should decide what’s best for their kids, and those are the kind of policies he will be supporting.”

Also Wednesday, officials at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona both announced the schools will require masks in classrooms and other settings like labs regardless of vaccination status to combat the spread of COVID-19. The governor and ASU had a public spat in June prompted by the university’s decision to require unvaccinated students to be regularly tested for the virus and wear masks.

Ducey barred the ASU policy in an executive order, and the Legislature added it to the budget. But unlike K-12 schools, the budget does not ban universities from imposing universal mask mandates.

An ASU policy statement posted Wednesday said other settings where masks will be required include “close-quarter environments where physical distancing may not be possible,” such as facilities that serve the general public, meeting rooms, workshops, production and design studios and any indoor areas designated by posted signage.

“Additionally, consistent with CDC guidance, face covers may be required in some crowded outdoor settings or activities that involve sustained close contact with other people,” the policy statement said.

The three Democrats who represent Tempe and the ASU area, Reps. Athena Salmon and Melody Hernandez and Sen. Juan Mendez, praised the action. They said in a statement that with tens of thousands of students returning for the fall semester, university administrators must do all they can to limit the spread of the virus.

They criticized Ducey and Republicans who control the legislature, saying they “continue to block and oppose sensible public health efforts in order to score cheap political points with their party’s base with dangerous and deadly consequences for thousands of Arizonans.”

On the hospital front, Valleywise Health joined other hospital systems in mandating all employees be vaccinated. The public hospital system that primarily serves Maricopa County will exempt workers with specific religious and medical reasons. But more than 4,000 employees, volunteers and on-site vendors will need to show they are inoculated by Nov. 1.

“We care for populations hardest hit by the pandemic and we have a responsibility to take every measure possible to ensure the safest care environment,” Steve Purves, president and CEO, said in a statement Wednesday.

The decision mirrors ones made by Banner Health and HonorHealth, both Arizona-based hospital chains that are requiring employees to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1 as a condition of employment. The Mayo Clinic is requiring all employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 17 or complete an opt-out process and wear masks at all times.

Wednesday’s developments on multiple fronts come as the highly contagious delta variant is driving COVID-19 surges across the nation.

Arizona reported 1,970 additional COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and six additional deaths. There were 1,513 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, the most since last February, according to the state’s pandemic website. University of Arizona researcher Dr. Joe Gerald says the new surge is likely to exceed last summer’s and could approach last winter’s major peak.

According to Johns Hopkins University data, Arizona’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen from 487 on July 8 to 2,495 on Aug. 9. Deaths are also rising, although not as rapidly. On July 8, the rolling average of daily deaths in Arizona was 9.7 and on Aug. 9 it was at 16.86 per day.