Gov. Doug Ducey lifts school mask mandate ... and his chance to be noticed nationally

Opinion: In dropping the schools' mask mandate, Gov. Doug Ducey has given up on prioritzing public health in favor of prioritizing political ambition. Again, that is.

Laurie Roberts
Arizona Republic
Gov. Doug Ducey answers a question as he talks about the latest Arizona COVID-19 information on Dec. 2 in Phoenix.
 Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey answers a question as he talks about the latest Arizona COVID-19 information during a news conference on Dec. 2, 2020, in Phoenix.

Gov. Doug Ducey continued his quest for national notice on Monday, abruptly lifting a requirement to wear masks at Arizona’s public schools.

With just 25% of the state fully immunized and mere weeks left in the school year, Ducey decided that now is the time for schools to drop their guard.

“Teachers, families and students have acted responsibly to mitigate the spread of the virus and protect one another, and our school leaders are ready to decide if masks should be required on their campuses,” he said in a statement.

Translation: Blame the school, not the governor, if your kid still has to wear a mask.

An 'embarrassing response to a virus'

State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman was blindsided by Ducey’s sudden move, calling it “just one example in a long line of decisions that have resulted in Arizona’s embarrassing response to a virus that has claimed over 17,000 lives and impacted thousands more.”

Ducey also issued an executive order barring any local government or state agency from requiring vaccine passports to enter government property. Never mind that no local or state agency has proposed requiring vaccine passports.

In rescinding the school mask mandate, Ducey says he is following the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the latest update on the CDCs website says masks should be continue to be worn.

“All schools should implement and layer prevention strategies and should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing,” the CDC says.

This is about Ducey's political future

Rather than prioritizing the guidance of public health officials, the term limited governor appears to be prioritizing his political future.

It's the same reason why he went running down to the U.S.-Mexico border late last month to stage a photo opp to decry President Joe Biden’s border policies – what, he hadn’t been there before? – and why he initially refused FEMA's offer to set up vaccination sites in underserved areas.

It’s why he won’t call out state Senate Republicans for going off the rails with their upcoming audit of the election. Not only is there no evidence that Arizona’s elections are rife with fraud, but there is ample evidence that the Trump ninjas Senate President Karen Fann has hired to conduct the audit see conspiracies behind every cactus.

Though the Republican road to the White House runs, at present, through Mar-a-Lago, Ducey appears to be setting himself up as an alternative should that be a dead-end for the party.

Or at least, as somebody’s No. 2 or some other prominent national post.

He said he'd use science, work with others

It’s the only explanation for why a governor who vowed early on to be guided by science would be so quick to ignore the scientists. And the public health experts.

And the state’s top education official, the one he pledged to work closely with a year ago.

“Unprecedented situations like the one we’re in call for leadership and partnership,” Ducey said, during a March 2020 press briefing on COVID-19, “and (Hoffman) has continually risen to the challenge to put kids first, and to be a leader for our schools, our children and our parents.”

I suppose that’s why he didn’t even consult with her before abruptly lifting the mask mandate on Monday.

It’s certainly not the worst COVID-19 decision Ducey has made. (See his decision to suddenly open up the state in early May on the eve of a Trump visit.) But it is perplexing, given how few weeks remain in the school year. Though children are far less likely to catch COVID-19, those under age 16 haven’t yet been offered vaccinations. 

Now, it's just about his national profile

But then, with the end of his second term fast approaching, it’s now all about lifting his national profile. That, and polishing up his conservative credentials with Republican voters  who believe masks are a symbol of government tyranny and COVID just another garden-variety flu.

One that has killed more than a half a million Americans, 17,193 of them in Arizona.

It’ll be up to the schools now to decide whether to require masks. Or not.

It’s all the same, apparently, to this governor, who seems more interested of late in public relations than in public health.

Reach Roberts at Follow her on Twitter at @LaurieRoberts.

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