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Health official says she doesn't know when Arizona's COVID-19 restrictions will end

PHOENIX — The state’s top health official testified Thursday she cannot say when the current COVID-19 health emergency will be over, the governor will rescind his orders — and Arizonans will be able to get their lives back to the way they were before.

In fact, Cara Christ said a decline to minimal levels in the benchmarks her agency created to determine the risk of spread won’t necessarily lead her to recommend to her boss, Gov. Doug Ducey, that he dissolve his orders and give up the emergency powers he assumed in March. She said there are other considerations.

But Christ also said that it won’t take the virus being gone for there no longer to be an emergency. She said it may just be that Arizonans are just going to have to live with it.

What currently makes any disease an emergency is that it could overwhelm hospitals. That Christ said, is why there was a declaration in March by her boss, Gov. Doug Ducey, with the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

At some point, though, she said that won’t be the case.

“That would change with COVID-19 as we continue in this pandemic,’’ Christ said.

“And then it would just be like living with the influenza,’’ she continued. “At that point it wouldn’t be a public health emergency any more.’’

Christ’s comments came as she was being questioned in a hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court by Ilan Wurman.

He represents more than 100 owners of bars that remain unable to reopen and operate the way they used to due to the Ducey-declared emergency. And Wurman is trying to convince Judge Pamela Gates that the restrictions on bars make no sense, especially with other businesses, including restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages, are allow to be open.

All that relates to when Christ thinks the emergency — and the restrictions on business operations, including bars imposed by Ducey — will or should go away.

“That’s hard to predict now because we learn new things every day,’’ she testified.

One issue in the case is how long Ducey can exercise his emergency authority.

Wurman said there are indicators. He pointed out the health department has established “benchmarks’’ to determine the risk of spread of the virus.

These look at three issues: the number of cases per 100,000 residents, the percent of tests for the virus that come back positive, and the percent of patients showing up in hospital emergency rooms with COVID-like symptoms. Each of those can be listed as having a substantial, moderate or minimal risk of spread.

Wurman wanted to know at what point those benchmarks will get to a point when the emergency will be over.

“It’s a little bit difficult,’’ Christ responded.

“Those benchmarks weren’t established to determine an end to the public health emergency,’’ she said. “They were really established to set benchmarks for business to be able to reopen and schools to go back into session.’’

That didn’t satisfy Wurman.

He told her to assume there will be no vaccine, no “therapeutic’’ to effectively treat the disease, and no “herd immunity’’ where enough people have contracted the virus, survived and now have antibodies. Given all that, Wurman asked Christ when she would be willing to recommend to Ducey that he rescind his emergency orders.

“If we were consistently at very, very low cases, if CLI (COVID-like illnesses) stayed low and the percent positivity remains low, below that 3%, we may make that recommendation,’’ she responded. But no promises.

“Again, it’s hard to predict,’’ Christ said.

Wurman pressed harder.

“If all three of the benchmarks established by your department indicated we had been at minimal transmission for eight weeks, would that be sufficient for you to recommend repeal?’’ he asked.

She never responded after attorneys for the state objected, saying she had already answered the question.

One thing Christ did say is that the emergency declaration really isn’t primarily about preventing people from getting sick and wiping out the disease.

“The public health emergency is really protecting our health care system, making sure we keep as few people from getting sick or dying and having access to those resources than it is just eradicating the disease,’’ she said.

Christ did concede that she could not say whether a single case of coronavirus had been traced to a bar in Arizona. But she said that’s not because none has happened.

“I’m not privy to the contact tracing investigation findings,’’ Christ said.

But the health director said she remains convinced that the risk of spread is higher at bars than at other businesses.

Some of it, she said, has to do with lack of ventilation indoors.

“There are ways that that can be increased,’’ Christ said. “But alcohol does tend to affect one’s ability to physically distance and make good decisions.’’

And then there’s the environment.

“They tend to have music,’’ she explained.

“It requires people to speak louder, projecting more droplets into the air, putting more virus,’’ Christ said. “It also requires people to lean in and get closer to individuals when they are talking because it’s going to be loud.’’

Team Trump Tour bus makes stop in Casa Grande

CASA GRANDE — The Team Trump on Tour bus was greeted with cheers and honks from passing cars as it made a stop in Casa Grande on Friday afternoon.

The bus was in town to support Tiffany Shedd, the Republican nominee who is running for Arizona’s 1st Congressional District seat. Shedd was not at her office when the bus stopped by. She was attending an event with John Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s nephew, on the Navajo Nation.

“It’s been exciting to see all of the enthusiasm from all of the volunteers,” said Republican National Committee Co-chair Tommy Hicks, who is traveling with the bus in Arizona.

According to the Trump campaign website, two buses have been crisscrossing the country in the last 85 days before the Nov. 3 election, the Team Trump on Tour and Women for Trump. Hicks said the bus has been making stops across the state and the country over the past two months in an effort to engage with all of the volunteers who are working to get President Donald Trump re-elected.

Different Trump supporters, such as Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward, U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, Rep. Andy Biggs and other federal and state officials and officials from various Trump support groups have been on the bus to help rally the volunteers and get out the vote, he said. And they’re still adding to the Trump team of volunteers and officials.

Using a bus makes it easier to reach volunteers, he said. The bus can reach up to 20 different locations in a day. In Arizona, the bus has made stops in areas such as Phoenix and Prescott Valley.

“We’re swarming Arizona and the country,” Hicks said.

The tour is also trying to spread the word that early in-person voting has opened in many states, including Arizona, and that it’s a safe way to vote early, he said.

Hicks didn’t comment on a question about if the campaign was also supporting Arizona’s Permanent Early Voting List. Voters on the list get a ballot mailed to them for each election and can either mail the completed ballot back or drop it off at a polling place in the county they live in.

Hicks told the crowd of about 40 to 50 people who came to see the bus that one of the most important things that Trump wanted to do was fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat that was recently vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“We need that seat filled,” he told the crowd.

He touted Trump’s accomplishments, saying that the president has done more in his four years in office than many other presidents.

“Think of what he can do in another four years,” he said.

Hicks said he expected Trump to win another four-year term because of the army of volunteers who are supporting his campaign, but he wanted those volunteers to go out and encourage others to vote for Trump.

“We need a clear, decisive victory on election night, so that CNN can call it early and can’t play games (with the election results),” he said.

Hicks claimed that Democrats have turned their back on the country and the American people. He said if the Democrats won the presidency they would pack the U.S. Supreme Court with judges that are favorable to their causes.

It is also important for the Republican Party to hold on to the Senate, he said.

Jesse Romero, a retired sheriff from California and Catholics for Trump advisory board member, also spoke at the bus event.

He said law enforcement officers, like his sons, support Trump. They believe Trump has their backs. He expected law enforcement officers to vote overwhelmingly in support of Trump.

“He’s the law and order president,” Romero said.

Romero, who said he is Latino and Catholic, expected Latinos and Christians to vote heavily in favor of Trump.

He said that the Latinos he had spoken with at campaign events were opening their eyes to the fact that the Republican Party had a lot to offer them after he gave them a side-by-side comparison of the Republican and Democratic parties. He also felt that Catholics and Christians in general were drawn to the Republican Party because of its biblical values.

After its brief stop in Casa Grande, the bus took off for its next appointment in Chandler, and from there to head for Nevada.

Shedd and O'Halleran duke it out in CD1 debate

PHOENIX — Incumbent Rep. Tom O’Halleran had a rough start to the 1st Congressional District debate Thursday evening.

O’Halleran found himself slightly tongue-tied at the start of his opening comments televised by PBS and had to pause to restart. He seemed to recover.

Tiffany Shedd alternated between answering questions and attacking O’Halleran’s voting record.



Democrat O’Halleran and Republican challenger Tiffany Shedd answered questions from a panel of three moderators from PBS, the Arizona Republic and National Public Radio station KJZZ during the half-hour debate on how the government had handled COVID-19, rural broadband internet access, police reforms, climate change and tribal sovereignty.

O’Halleran said he had concerns about how the federal government handled the pandemic.

“We didn’t get ready fast enough,” he said. “And we still aren’t ready for it.”

The federal government had enough funds before the pandemic hit to prepare for it, O’Halleran said. But those funds and equipment weren’t disbursed by the federal government in time.

O’Halleran said he wrote five letters to President Donald Trump’s pandemic task force asking about the federal government’s response and making suggestions. He was also part of a group of congressmen who sent a bipartisan plan on how to handle the pandemic to the White House, but he never heard back.

Shedd said the virus hit her family hard. She is a caregiver for an aunt who has had a kidney transplant and is extremely vulnerable to the virus due to her condition.

Shedd said Trump was right when he pushed the decision on how to handle the virus down to the state level. Each state, and the towns and cities within each state, were all in different situations when it came to the virus, she said. Some communities had a high number of cases and others did not. Each community and state needed the flexibility to handle the situation as they saw fit.

Shedd said one thing that concerned her about the pandemic was that Congress had yet to pass another pandemic relief bill. The last relief bill was passed in May. Families, small business owners and schools were all still struggling with the medical and economic effects of the pandemic, she said.

The Republican and Democratic parties in Congress have been battling over a number of proposed relief bills over the past several months. Each party has been rejecting the other party’s relief bills. Trump has recently proposed his own relief package to Congress.

Shedd asked O’Halleran when residents could expect another relief package.

O’Halleran said he was just as frustrated and put the blame on the U.S. Senate leadership, saying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had called for a pause back in May. O’Halleran said that Democrats had asked for everything that Shedd had requested in their bills but the Senate refused to pass them.

Shedd suggested that if the Democrats trimmed some of the pork from the bill, it might pass.

When asked about access to broadband in rural areas of the state and country, O’Halleran said the House had sent a bill with $85 billion in funding for the service, along with $16 billion from the Federal Communications Commission.

“It’s still sitting on the majority leader’s desk in the Senate,” he said.

Shedd suggested that a possible solution would be to work with co-ops, like the federal government did with getting electrical and phone services out to rural areas in the 1920s.

She also pointed out that O’Halleran had voted against a bill that would have provided 30% of the funding needed for rural broadband.

O’Halleran responded that representatives don’t vote for every bill that comes along, especially if they know there is a better bill available or coming down the pipeline. “I want a bill that’s going to work for rural America,” he said.

He was more than willing to work with co-ops, universities and other organizations to get broadband internet out to rural areas, he said.

When asked about what police reforms he’d like to see take place, O’Halleran, who is a former police officer, said police departments need to look at hiring the right people, there needs to be better supervision of line officers and leadership, and there needs to be better training for those officers. He also suggested bringing in experts in mental health and social services to work with departments and communities. It also needs to be an ongoing process that doesn’t stop after a few years of training and departments have to work with their communities to meet the needs of their communities, he said.

Departments and officers need more funding for more training, Shedd said. While she acknowledged that there may be a few “bad apples” out there that need to be removed from various police forces, Shedd said she believed that some of the incidents reported in the news may have been caused by a lack of training on how to properly respond to such incidents.

When asked, Shedd said she definitely believed that the climate is changing and that the federal government needs to work out what is causing it. However, the federal government needs to move quickly, it can’t wait for drought and a catastrophic wildfire to determine that it needs to do something.

She pointed out that O’Halleran had voted against a bill that would have allowed logging companies to partner with the National Forest Service on thinning forests across the nation.

O’Halleran shot back that he had been working with the National Forest Service on logging projects for many years and was one of the first in the state to suggest moving toward renewable energy sources.

In their closing statements, both candidates stated that they would work for the people of Arizona. Shedd touted her experience as a small business owner and mother who has lived in the state her whole life.

O’Halleran pointed out that he is also a former small business owner, father and grandfather and former police officer and has spent his years in the Arizona Legislature and Congress working hard to get things done for Arizonans.