Safford Council rejects resolution supporting mask mandate

Safford City Councilmen Mike Andazola, left, and Arnold Lopez, chat with city staff before the start of a special meeting Monday in the Public Works administration building. The council voted 5-2 in opposition of a resolution supporting Graham County's mask mandate. - David Bell Photo/Gila Valley Central

SAFFORD — On the same day that Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center issued a statement announcing the facility was at full bed capacity, the Safford City Council voted against a resolution of support for the Graham County mask mandate.

The Safford City Council voted 5-2 against the resolution at a special meeting Monday. Voting in favor of the resolution was Vice Mayor Richard Ortega and Councilman Brad Hemphill; while voting in opposition were Mayor Jason Kouts and Councilmen Arnold Lopez, Steve McGaughey, Michael Andazola and Gene Seale.

“We have a strong encouragement for people to wear masks because it doesn’t look like law enforcement is going to enforce this at all,” Seale said. “Like I said, we’re part of the county and I think we should support what they do as individuals. And whether we write a resolution or not, to that effect, is kind of whatever.”

Members of the council expressed concern with parts of the resolution, with Mayor Jason Kouts saying he would not vote for it “as written,” and Councilman Arnold Lopez questioning the accuracy of specific provisions, saying he didn’t know if the hospital has enough staff to deal with the increased caseload due to COVID-19.

“That’s what the hospital says, but I don’t know,” Lopez said.

Three members of the public spoke during the meeting, all in opposition to the resolution, with Chris Wheeler equating COVID-19 to 5G wireless networks.

“There is a lot of things that we’re missing here, to which is the bigger picture,” Wheeler said. “It’s not about the masks; it’s far beyond that. That’s just the way to see how many people are still going to conform with their agenda.  And there is an agenda. If this really was a pandemic, you’d know a lot of people who had died.”

On Monday, the hospital issued a statement explaining that the surge of patients at the health-care facility continues to grow.

“MGRMC is currently experiencing unprecedented numbers as a result of the ongoing pandemic and its current spike. Patient levels for non-COVID related issues are currently consistent with this time of year. However, an additional average of 14 COVID-positive patients per day over the last five days in our hospital is effectively doubling our standard patient load. Yesterday, 18 individuals presented themselves at our Emergency Department with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 while an additional 9 individuals presented themselves with flu-like symptoms which can also indicate COVID positivity,” the statement read.

“At the time of this statement’s issue, MGRMC is at full bed capacity. Again, these numbers are unprecedented. If trends do not change, our hospital will be unable to meet the capacity needs of our community. “

At a meeting with mayors, managers and county leaders two weeks ago, MGRMC leaders and members of the Health Department called on the county to enact a requirement for residents to wear face coverings when in public.

The Town Councils of Pima and Thatcher unanimously passed resolutions of support of a mandate, as did the Graham County Chamber of Commerce board. The Graham County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the mandate at a special meeting Nov. 25, going into effect Nov. 26 and running through Jan. 5, 2021.