Flu prevention concept. Medical face mask on grey background top view copy space

Payson Mayor Tom Morrisey thinks mask wearing is one of the best ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 in his town—but he doesn’t want to force residents to do it.

While Maricopa County continues to have a mask mandate, Payson is one of a number of local governments that have lifted face mask ordinances in recent weeks, even as infections in the county and state have started to surge again.

One health expert said relaxing mask mandates now is “foolish” for local officials who want to reopen their communities, because it could lead to a surge that might bring on new, harsher shutdowns.

The moves come as COVID-19 infections have started climbing again, after dropping from a seven-day average of 3,454 cases per day in early July to 392 in early September. But the number has steadily grown since then, reaching a seven-day average of 1,002 new cases per day recently, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The shift sparked a warning from Dr. Cara Christ, director of the state health department, who cautioned Arizonans from becoming complacent and losing ground from the progress the state has made since July.

“With the data showing COVID-19 still circulating in our community, Arizonans need to remain vigilant,” Christ said.

 She urged all Arizonans to wear a mask in public, socially distance, wash hands frequently, avoid large gatherings, stay home if they are feeling sick and get a flu shot.

“We know that masks are one of the most effective methods for preventing COVID-19 transmission, and we urge all Arizonans to appropriately wear a mask, whether or not they live in an area with a mandate,” she said. “There’s still more to do, and we can’t let our guard down.”

Gov. Doug Ducey has shied away from a statewide mask mandate. While the state requires masks in certain businesses—including bars, restaurants and gyms—Ducey has otherwise called on individuals to take appropriate precautions and left local governments to decide whether to require masks more broadly or not.

Six of the state’s 15 counties, which are home to most of the state’s population, have adopted mask mandates: Maricopa, Pima, Coconino, Yuma, Santa Cruz and Greenlee.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said it’s “foolish” for city governments to relax these mandates. If local governments want to reopen their communities and not return to a stay-at-home order, he said, mandating face coverings must be the “top priority.”

“The single, most important thing that they can do is to require continued wearing of face coverings in indoor public environments,” Humble said. “It doesn’t need to be everywhere; it just needs to be in indoor public environments.”

Humble said lifting a mask mandate is “not the end of the world, but I think it’s absolutely foolish.”