PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey will not order businesses to re-close or impose new restrictions even when the infection threat of COVID-19 in any area returns to “substantial.’’
“Arizona’s open,’’ the governor said Thursday.
“Arizona’s economy is open, Arizona’s educational institutions are open, Arizona’s tourism institutions are open,’’ he said. “The expectation is they are going to remain open.’’
Ducey’s comments came as state Health Director Cara Christ said the coronavirus numbers are going to get worse.
“There are counties that are likely to go back into substantial spread starting next week,’’ she said.
It was having that threat of substantial spread that led to the original orders to shutter businesses in March and then Ducey’s directive to re-close many of them in June following a spike in cases.
“We should expect a rise in cases,’’ the governor said, though he suggested part of the reason for that will be an increase in the number and types of testing available.
But the governor said Thursday the decisions he made in before won’t be repeated.
“We are not going to be, due to a gradual rise in cases, be making any dramatic changes,’’ he said.
The problems appear to be localized.
Statewide, the rate of infection remains below 100 per 100,000 residents, enough to put it in the moderate range. And the percentage of tests for the virus coming back positive actually is below 5%, showing what the state calls “minimal’’ spread.
But in Pima County, for example, the rate of infection is not just increasing but, for the week ending Sept. 13 — the most recent data available — it actually slipped past that 100 per 100,000 level. That, according to health department measurements, makes the risk of spread substantial.
New data for the week ending Sept. 20 should be available next week.
And while the percent of tests coming back positive remains in the moderate range, that figure, too, is increasing.
Coconino County also shows an increase in cases, into the range of substantial risk.
Most other counties, by contrast, appear to have a slowing rate of infection, at least on a county-wide basis. But there still are potentials of local hotspots.
One potential cause could relate to the return of university students.
The situation in Tucson got so bad that the University of Arizona and Pima County instituted a voluntary “shelter-in-place’’ recommendation. Police and code inspectors have issued citations and code-of-conduct violations and warned of potential legal action to curb the spread of the virus.
“We want to avoid closing down,’’ Christ said. So the option is something less expansive.
“We’re starting to work with those county health departments to identify if there are targeted areas where we can work specifically with those business owners,’’ she said. So rather than shuttering businesses she would instead propose more narrow “mitigation strategies’’ like a further reduction in the number of customers at any one time.
Daniel Scarpinato, the governor’s chief of staff, said one reason his boss can say he won’t close businesses again is because the situation is far different, even if the raw numbers may not show it.
“We have broad access to testing with fast turnaround,’’ Scarpinato said.
“We have increased contact tracing,’’ he continued. “We’ve got enforcement of rules and regulations.’’
All that, Scarpinato said, means it allows people to be found and told to isolate themselves if they’ve been exposed.
And there’s something else.
“Businesses are operating much differently today than they were when some of these industries were closed,’’ Scarpinato said.
For example, he said, restaurant patrons have to wear their masks when they’re not at their table. Masks also are required at salons and barber shops.
Then there are capacity restrictions, with restaurants — and bars that operate like restaurants — at 50% and gyms at just 25% of normal attendance.
And even in cities and counties where masks are not required, Scarpinato said most retailers are requiring them of customers.
The other big issue, he said, is that the state is better equipped to handle an outbreak.
“Our hospitals were at capacity,’’ Scarpinato said, with some close to having to implement “surge’’ plans to find more space.
One potential reason for Ducey’s reticence to once again shut down businesses is purely financial.
Earlier this year business owners could apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program which provided loans — potentially forgivable — for companies to keep workers on the payroll. That program is now gone.
What’s also gone is the extra unemployment benefits available from the federal government, initially at $600 a week and, more recently, reduced to $300. Those, too, have disappeared, leaving jobless Arizona workers with a maximum state benefit of $240 a week.
Schools aren’t affected by all of this, at least not at the state level, even amid indications of rising infection rates. That’s because the state has issued only “recommendations’’ for when in-person classes can start, with local districts free to follow or disregard them.