Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Herald: The Graham County Chamber of Commerce Governing Board voted unanimously during a special meeting Saturday to send a letter to the Graham County Board of Supervisors requesting it impose a mask mandate for people when they are in public and cannot physically distance from others. Executive Director Vance Bryce is shown here wearing a mask at a previous event.
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – The Graham County Chamber of Commerce, towns of Pima and Thatcher, and the Graham County Department of Health and Human Services are petitioning the Graham County Board of Supervisors to issue a mask mandate for Graham County.
The proposed mandate would require the wearing of masks in stores and public areas where physical distancing is not possible. Exceptions would include athletic practices and competition, as well as athletic classes, such as Karate classes.
The Chamber drafted a letter to the BOS requesting a mask mandate. On Saturday, the Chamber Board unanimously voted to approve the letter.
In the letter, the Chamber Board said, “By preventing the spread of COVID-19, we are supporting our member businesses by helping our positive case numbers flatten enough to prevent a stay at home order. Our message to the business community and our customers is Mask Up Gila Valley or get shut down.”
Chamber Executive Director Vance Bryce received requests from local council members to ask the Gila Valley business community to support a mask mandate. “Nobody likes to be told what to do. We need to decide as a community to do our best to flatten the curve and keep our businesses open, we will be much better off and lives will be saved.” Local municipalities are holding meetings next week to discuss strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Pima Town Manager Sean Lewis advised Chamber members during the Saturday morning that a mask mandate would be recommended for the next six weeks in part to show the state that the county is being proactive about its increase in cases and to help keep businesses open.
“My biggest fear is if we don’t do something – if we don’t show the governor that we’re trying to curtail our numbers; that we’re doing something – I do believe that he is going to shut us down,” Lewis said. “I think, with all of us, that’s the last thing we want to see . . . I’m of the belief if we don’t do something, the state of Arizona is going to and I don’t think it’s going to be a mask mandate.”
Previously, the state of Arizona and Governor Doug Ducey had listed a 10 percent standard to avoid another shutdown. Lewis advised that Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas advised at a meeting of local government officials that Graham County had increased from 16.5 percent to 26 percent and believes 30 percent is on the immediate horizon.
Additionally, Lewis said MGRMC CEO Roland Knox also informed the group that Thursday marked the first day the hospital had more than 50 percent of its patients be COVID-19 related and that it is seeking additional staff as 30 of its healthcare workers are currently out due to the virus.
In addition to the letter from the Chamber, Lewis said the Pima Town Council will hold a special council meeting Monday to approve a resolution asking the county to issue a mask mandate and that Thatcher is doing the same.
Lewis said none of the government leaders and community members want a mask mandate to force a belief on anyone but to keep a say in how the area operates.
“We want a mask mandate out there because we need to do something,” Lewis said. “I want to be in control of what happens in my town and I want all of us to be in control of what happens in our Valley. I’m afraid if we don’t do something, somebody else is going to be in control. I don’t want someone else to take control of our area because we didn’t do anything.”
“If we don’t do something, Ducey will shut us down.”
A number of business owners were mixed on their beliefs whether masks help reduce the spread but all were in favor of issuing a mask mandate if that is what it takes to keep businesses open.
In addition to the mask mandate, the county is expected to begin an advertising blitz encouraging the use of masks and reminding proper precautionary measures, including physical distancing and washing hands.
While a mask mandate will not immediately lower any numbers, it is believed to help lower the spread in the following weeks, allowing time for a vaccine. Even a total shutdown wouldn’t lower numbers for the first two weeks.
Two recently tested vaccines for COVID-19 are expected to begin distribution in December, starting with nursing homes, first responders, and prison populations, according to Lewis.
“The mask mandate will have zero effect on numbers for at least two weeks,” Lewis said. “If we did a complete shutdown . . . every single thing in the world is shut down (and) we’re on a complete lockdown, numbers wouldn’t change for 13 days. So, this is not an immediate fix. This is not a shot when you have a cold. This is not that. But what this is, is a way of letting everyone know we are doing something. It’s a way of changing people’s behaviors and it’s a way of, hopefully, in four or five weeks, it does have a good effect. One of the theories behind the mask mandate too isn’t just that the masks stop the virus from spreading, but it changes everybody’s behaviors. It keeps people away from each other in line. It keeps people more cognizant (of) washing their hands (and) not touching their face as much.”