Arizona’s public universities lift mask mandates under new CDC guidelines

Arizona State stopped requiring masks indoors beginning Monday – a week after Northern Arizona University dropped its mandate. The University of Arizona will lift its requirement March 21. (File photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The University of Arizona will lift its indoor mask requirement for students, faculty and visitors beginning March 21, following similar moves by Arizona’s other two public universities.

Northern Arizona University stopped requiring masks on campus on March 7, and Arizona State did the same beginning Monday. The protocol changes came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on Feb. 25, stating that masks may no longer be necessary in U.S. counties with medium to low transmission rates. Maricopa, Pima and Coconino counties currently are at medium risk of transmission.

UArizona President Robert Robbins said during a weekly briefing Monday that the university waited until March 21 to lift its mask requirement so that students and faculty would have a week to monitor their health after spring break travel, to avoid another spike in cases.

“As these changes go into place, I want to again emphasize the vital importance of compassion for one another, especially for those who are most vulnerable to this still deadly virus,” Robbins said. “Fellow members of our community might ask you to wear a mask when near them in a classroom, office or meeting space. I ask that you respect their needs and be mindful that others have varying levels of risk from COVID 19.”

Arizona never had a statewide mask mandate. Gov. Doug Ducey tried to restrict local governments and schools from instituting them but was hindered by the courts. With the recent drastic drop in cases and deaths, combined with the updated CDC recommendations, schools and cities that had mandates are lifting them.

The Arizona Department of Health Services website reports that as of March 9, there were 6,549 new cases across the state, compared with nearly 150,000 a week at the peak of the pandemic in January, propelled by the omicron variant. Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, nearly 2 million COVID-19 cases have been reported in Arizona.

Phoenix lifted its indoor mask requirement Feb. 28 following the updated CDC guidance. Exceptions exist at Sky Harbor International Airport and on airplanes, on Valley Metro buses and light rail, and at Municipal Court.

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The CDC still recommends that those who are immunocompromised or at high risk for illness wear masks in areas of medium risk of transmission.

All three state public universities still will require masks on public transportation, such as campus shuttles, at testing and vaccination sites or other campus health services, and in areas that already required personal protective equipment before the pandemic began.

UArizona reported Monday that as of March 11, the percent positive rate for COVID-19 testing at the university was about 1% in the past 10 days. This is down from the overall 4.1% positivity rate at the university since August.

The university reported that 80.7% of eligible Pima County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 71.8% in the state overall.

Although masks are no longer required on campus for now, university officials reiterated that the guidance may change again as the CDC continues to monitor the pandemic and make changes as necessary.

“There’s still opportunity for other mutations to occur and variants to come out that could set us back. We’re certainly hoping that doesn’t happen,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, Distinguished Professor of public health at UArizona and a former U.S. surgeon general. “But our scientists are monitoring this all the time with sequencing to make sure that nothing emerges.”

Endia Fontanez end-ee-uh fohn-tawn-ayz (she/her)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Endia Fontanez expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in women and gender studies. Fontanez, who is in Barrett, the Honors College and interning with The Arizona Republic, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.