PHOENIX — The state’s largest community college systems are imposing their own mask mandates on students, staff and visitors in all indoor spaces, saying they are not violating a state law and gubernatorial executive order that appear to preclude that.
Announcements made Thursday by the Maricopa and Pima colleges come less than 24 hours after Arizona State University declared the new statute only bars them from requiring masks of unvaccinated students but not from requiring everyone on campus to have a face covering, inoculated or not.
That was quickly followed by Northern Arizona University and, late Wednesday, the University of Arizona.
But representatives of both community colleges told Capitol Media Services the mask rules actually were in the works before the universities made their own announcements.
Libby Howell said Pima Community College has had a planning committee consisting of administrators, staff and some faculty that has been reviewing the issue as well as the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control for mask use on school campuses.
“So it’s not been a sudden decision on our part,” she said.
“It’s something we’ve been considering for some time.”
In fact, Howell said, the college actually has had a mask mandate through both the spring and summer semesters.
What this does is spell out that, legislation or not, it will continue when students return next week for fall classes.
Matt Hasson said the situation is similar at the Maricopa Community Colleges and its 10 individually accredited colleges.
He said Maricopa actually relaxed its mask mandate earlier this year after infection rates dropped, instead simply encouraging staff and students to wear a mask.
“But now that everything’s in the red, we’re back to a mask requirement,” Hasson said, referring to how the health department uses color coding to classify the risk of spread.
Anything above 100 cases for 100,000 residents is considered high transmission; the most recent data puts Maricopa County at 285 cases per 100,000.
Pima County has 166 cases per 100,000 residents.
Still, Hasson said, this wasn’t a snap judgment.
“We’ve been talking about this all week,” he said. What delayed a final decision, Hasson said, was getting advice from the lawyers.
“We don’t want to violate the executive order, obviously,” he said, saying the timing on the heels of the announcements by the state universities was “coincidental.”
It’s that legal interpretation of the order and the statute that both colleges concluded allows them to go ahead with the requirements. The original June 15 order by Gov. Doug Ducey says a public university or community college cannot mandate that students be vaccinated for COVID-19 or show proof of their vaccination status.
More to the point, it says the schools cannot place any conditions on attendance or participation, like mandatory testing or mask usage, if the person chooses not to get vaccinated or not provide proof.
State lawmakers subsequently approved virtually identical language. But both Howell and Hasson pointed out that their new policies apply to all students, regardless of their vaccination status, and not just to the unvaccinated.
And that, they said, means they do not run afoul of either Ducey’s edict or the statute.
Ducey, for his part, remains adamantly opposed to mandating that faculty and students wear face coverings.
“It’s an individual choice,” said press aide C.J. Karamargin. “No one and no law anywhere is stopping anyone from wearing masks.”
The governor, however, has shown no interest in actually challenging the new policies. Instead, he appears to be depending on the refusal of some to comply.
“Ultimately, these mandate are toothless, unenforceable and will not hold up in court,” Karamargin said.
Howell, however, said that hasn’t been an issue.
“We’ve had a mask mandate for the last three semesters,” she said, saying there has been “very little resistance.”
And what of those who do not comply?
“We always try the soft-glove approach at first,” Howell said, asking people what their issues are with masks, and explaining the rules are about protecting everyone else and ensuring that classes can continue.
For faculty and staff, she said, there is leverage as they are required, as conditions of their employment, to obey all rules.
“The policy is, it’s a mandate,” Howell said, and a condition of attending classes. “So we would tell the students it’s required.”
Jay Thorne, a spokesman for ASU, said this is just another of the rules that students attending the school are expected to follow.
“There certainly is the option to suspend, expel, whatever it might be, as part of the discipline of the student code of conduct, as it exists today for violations,” he said.
But the issue of enforcement remains less clear at the University of Arizona.
“We have teams meeting to discuss all of these issues,” said university spokeswoman Pam Scott. “We just need a bit more time.”
While mandating indoor mask use on campuses, both community college systems also are making efforts to get students inoculated. Maricopa colleges are offering $50 grocery gift cards for students who receive the vaccine at one of their campuses.
There is no similar plan at Pima. But Howell said officials there are working with the county health department to have a vaccination clinic on campus next month.
The policies at the schools differ slightly from what some of the universities have adopted.
For example, at the University of Arizona, President Robert Robbins said mask will be required “in all indoor space where it is not possible to adequately and continuously maintain social distance.”
But both community colleges have decided to have a policy that applies to all indoor spaces, with no allowance for “social distancing.”
Hasson said that’s less complicated.
For example, he said, someone may be in a hallway with no one else around, wondering whether the mask can be removed.
“We don’t want to cause confusion,” Hasson said. “It’s a little simpler to simply say, ‘If you’re in our building, wear a mask.”