***UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional comments.
Retail stores will be permitted to reopen with physical distancing measures in place, while the remainder of Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order will stay in effect for another two weeks as Arizona continues its fight against the coronavirus.
Ducey announced on Wednesday that retailers that aren’t classified as essential services under the governor’s previous orders will be permitted to reopen on Monday and offer goods for sale through delivery, drive-through, walk-up, window service or appointment, as long as they follow physical distancing requirements.
Those restrictions will ease further on May 8, when non-essential retailers can offer goods for sale to customers in their stores.
Ducey said his plan prioritizes public health and allows the state to hold onto the gains it has made as Arizona has sought to curb the spread of COVID-19. His objective, he said, is to “turn up the light” on Arizona’s economy, much of which has been shut down since mid-March.
“We’re going to return to physical health and economic health the Arizona way,” Ducey said. “It will be gradual and phased in.”
Ducey extended the remainder of his order, dubbed Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected, until at least May 15. That means other non-essential businesses will remain closed and large gatherings will still be prohibited.
For now, restaurants will remain closed for dine-in service. The governor said plans to allow dine-in service to resume with new restrictions will be in place sometime in May, and set an aspirational date of May 12, which he described as a “best-case scenario” for the industry.
“When you do walk into one of those opened restaurants for dine-in, it will be a different experience. It will be a temporary experience with food service workers and service workers wearing masks,” Ducey said. “Rather than coming to your table and asking you what you’d like to drink, they’ll likely inform you that they’ve just washed their hands and ask you how you would like your food delivered.”
Some businesses will remain closed indefinitely, though Ducey said he hoped they would be able to reopen sometime in May. Bars aren’t part of the governor’s best-case scenario for restaurants. Hair and nail salons, which Ducey originally exempted from his stay-at-home order but later ordered closed, can’t provide their services. And businesses like gyms must also stay closed for now.
“I don’t think anybody really believed that on May 1 we would have a return to normalcy in Arizona. What we want to do is eventually and gradually get there,” the governor said.
Ducey was optimistic that those businesses will be permitted to open later in the month.
“I’m hopeful for the month of May. I think May can be a very positive month,” Ducey said.
Ducey hinted last week at the approach he would take when the executive order expired. At an April 22 press briefing, the governor said he didn’t want to lose the ground that Arizona has gained in the battle against COVID-19, and that the next steps he took would be guided first and foremost by public health.
“They are going to be step-by-step and incremental. They’ll be gradual and they will be responsible as we restore confidence in our economy at the appropriate and safe time in Arizona,” Ducey said last week.
At that same press briefing, Ducey announced that he would rescind his ban on elective surgeries, his first loosening of the restrictions he put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Ducey stuck by the step-by-step approach he foreshadowed a week ago, and emphasized that he was eschewing the more dramatic reopenings that some governors have permitted. He referenced Georgia, where many restaurateurs said they will remain closed, despite Gov. Brian Kemp’s order allowing them to reopen. And he rejected the policy recently implemented by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, which allowed restaurants to open at 25% capacity.
“Anybody that’s ever run a restaurant knows that 25% is the surest way to just continually lose a lot more money,” he said.
Ducey said he wants to reopen the state safely and in a way that encourages everyone to take part in that process. He said he spoke earlier this week with the CEO of a Fortune 100 big-box retailer, who explained that 30% of people are ready to go out to a restaurant today, and another 30% don’t want to leave their homes until a vaccine is available for COVID-19.
That leaves 40% in the middle who are open to going out if it’s permitted, but want to be assured that it’s safe.
“What good is it to make a decision if you don’t have the citizen and consumer confidence of the largest portion of your population? Because I not only want to reopen the economy, I intend to reopen the economy successfully in doing this,” Ducey said.
He warned businesses that intend to defy his order that it’s enforceable by law, with violations punishable with fines of up to $2,500 and up to six months in jail. And restaurants that choose to violate the order will face an additional punishment.
“And for those that own an establishment and are publicly going to flaunt the order, you are playing with your liquor license. Don’t do that,” the governor said.
Timothy Lant, a mathematical epidemiologist at Arizona State University who provides coronavirus modeling for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said he believes Ducey’s plan is a safe way to begin reopening the economy.
“We waited as long as we could in order to make the right decision, and I think waiting until the 15th is the right decision,” Lant said. “It’s consistent with CDC guidance. It’s consistent with the models that I have developed. It’s consistent with similar activities in other states that are, I think, on the cautious side of doing what needs to be done.”
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a longtime supporter of the governor, praised Ducey’s revised order, which president and CEO Glenn Hamer called “another example of his administration continuing to curb the spread of COVID-19, but also taking prudent steps to reopen the Arizona economy in a safe, responsible way.”
“The revisions put forth by the governor breathe needed oxygen into our retail sector. Stores that sell essential goods have proven already that they can operate safely, and we look forward to more retailers doing the same,” Hamer said in a statement issued by the Chamber.
Prior to Ducey’s announcement, mayors Coral Evans of Flagstaff, Kate Gallego of Phoenix, and Regina Romero of Tucson, preemptively urged Ducey to adhere to guidelines the U.S. Centers for Disease Control established for when states can reopen safely, including a downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period and a “robust testing program” for at-risk people such as health care workers.
Following the announcement, the three Democratic mayors said they would prefer for the stay-at-home order to stay in place without modifications, but supported Ducey’s decision to leave most restrictions in place until at least May 15.
“The decision the Governor made was certainly not an easy one, but it was the right one. We encourage the Governor to commit to looking for a 14-day decline in the number of positive COVID cases in Arizona before moving forward on further reopening. The Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines are responsible, and we believe Arizona should follow them,” Evans, Gallego and Romero said in their joint statement.
Ducey’s announcement was met with mixed reviews in the legislature, including among his fellow Republicans, some of whom were highly critical of the plan.
Shortly after Ducey’s press briefing ended, Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, wrote on Twitter that she’ll introduce a resolution in the Arizona House of Representatives to end the current state of emergency “so we can go back to work.”
Townsend later took aim at Ducey’s comments that businesses that violated his order could face fines or jail time.
“Threatening my constituents with jail time is the last straw, @dougducey. I will be using all options to bring Arizona back into a Constitutional state. Who is with me?” Townsend wrote on Twitter.
— Rep. Kelly Townsend (@KellyTownsend11) April 30, 2020
House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, wrote on Facebook, “I’m asking my colleagues in the legislature to join me in overturning the arbitrary extension of the stay at home order. In case you didn’t know, anyone can stay at home.”
Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, voiced his agreement with Petersen on Twitter, writing, “I’m on board… this has went on long enough!”
The Arizona Free Enterprise Club, an economic conservative advocacy organization, tweeted that 25 percent of the small businesses that closed during the shutdown won’t reopen, and said that number will likely rise due to Ducey’s extension of his executive order. Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, retweeted that comment, adding her own commentary, “This is tragic.”
Ducey emphasized that his decisions are being guided by data on the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and said he’s prioritizing public health. He cited some promising numbers, such as a sustained drop in COVID-like and influenza-like illnesses since he enacted his stay-at-home order at the end of March, and said there are plenty of hospital beds, intensive care unit beds and ventilators in case they’re needed for coronavirus patients.
But Ducey said he and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ have not yet seen the sustained decrease they’re looking for in coronavirus cases and deaths.
As of Wednesday morning, Arizona had seen 7,202 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 304 deaths from the virus. The governor said he still wants to see a day-to-day decrease in confirmed cases and deaths.
“What I’m looking for, what Dr. Christ is looking for, are trends,” Ducey said. “We haven’t seen it yet, if indeed it is coming in Arizona.”