Arizona’s three public universities announced Wednesday that they would be instituting face-mask requirements in certain settings, possibly defying legislation that prohibits universities and community colleges from mandating several public-health measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
Arizona State University was the first institution to push back, announcing it would be requiring face coverings in all classrooms and labs and in “close-quarter environments where physical distancing may not be possible.” Northern Arizona University followed soon after, requiring masks in all classrooms, labs, and indoor and outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible. Then the University of Arizona announced a mask requirement, with President Robert C. Robbins stating that masks would be required in all indoor settings where social distancing is not possible.
On Thursday, Maricopa County Community College District also joined in, announcing face masks would be required indoors across its 10 member campuses. Last semester, the system enrolled more than 86,000 students around the Phoenix metropolitan area.
On June 15, Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order preventing public universities and community colleges from requiring students to get the Covid-19 vaccine or submit proof of vaccination. The order also prohibits these institutions from requiring students to wear masks or get tested in order to attend class.
Later in June, the state legislature approved a higher-education budget bill — which Ducey signed into law — that included an amendment similar to his executive order. The bill is not supposed to take effect until September 29 — the 91st day after the end of session — but GOP lawmakers and Ducey have claimed that the ban is retroactive to July 1.
In an email statement to The Chronicle, a spokesman for Ducey emphasized that mask-wearing is an individual decision and that no law is stopping people from wearing masks.
“Ultimately, these mandates are toothless, unenforceable, and will not hold up in court,” said C.J. Karamargin, communications director for the Republican governor. “As we’ve said repeatedly, the game changer in this discussion is the vaccine. It works, it’s widely available, and we strongly encourage every eligible Arizonan to get their shot.”
The conflict between the Arizona GOP’s attempts to prohibit mask mandates and the universities’ and community colleges’ actions potentially sets the stage for a legal fight, said Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.
“We’re in a bit of a standoff right now, which I think can only be refereed by the judicial system, ultimately,” Lake said, referring to Norwegian Cruise Line’s successful challenge to a Florida law banning companies from requiring proof of vaccination. In Texas, several of the state’s largest school districts have issued mask mandates in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order prohibiting schools from doing so, and a nonprofit education group has sued to block the order.
Lyndel R. Manson, the chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the three universities, said their mask requirements are not in violation of Ducey’s executive order or the new law because they apply to everyone, regardless of vaccination status (Maricopa County Community College District’s leadership made the same argument in its announcement). When asked whether she is expecting any legal ramifications from the decision, Manson said she could not determine that.
“We are doing what we need to do to make our campuses safe and open and continue their in-person operations,” Manson said.