After weeks of rising COVID-19 case numbers, increased hospitalizations, intense scrutiny and national media coverage of the growing outbreak in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey struck a new tone, allowing local governments to impose mask mandates and vowing to enforce social distancing guidelines against recalcitrant businesses.
Ducey signaled a shift from the moment he walked into his press conference on Wednesday at the Arizona Commerce Authority’s downtown Phoenix office, as he, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ and Maj. Gen. Mick McGuire, head of the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, walked into the room wearing cloth face masks.
Prior to the press conference, the mayors of Avondale, Flagstaff and Tucson all said they would implement new policies requiring people to wear face masks in public. Since mid-March, Ducey had barred local governments from enacting their own policies to respond to the pandemic.
Just last week, he said that the pandemic trumped local control arguments.
Ducey has faced increasing pressure to require face mask usage across the state. Nearly 700 doctors signed a letter to the governor on Tuesday asking for such a policy, and the The Arizona Republic’s editorial board echoed that call earlier on Wednesday.
While the governor won’t require masks statewide, he said he will now allow cities to set their own policies. He said the new policy is coming at the request of mayors, such as Arturo Garino of Nogales, whose city is part of a coronavirus hotspot on Arizona’s southern border.
“On this issue, we needed more flexibility. And the flexibility is going to be given to the mayors,” Ducey said.
Ducey said there are some instances in which a statewide mandate is appropriate. But he noted that some rural counties have seen very little transmission of COVID-19, and if some rural counties tell the state to “pound sand on an executive order because that doesn’t reflect (their) situation, it’s a self-defeating executive order.”
That comment comes less than three weeks after several rural police chiefs and other officials refused to enforce a statewide curfew the governor imposed to deal with protests across the state and looting in Scottsdale.
Arizona will launch a public education campaign to encourage mask wearing and social distancing as well, the governor said. Ducey encouraged all Arizonans to wear face masks in public places, though he later qualified that and said it was important to do so only when they can’t physically distance.
Ducey pledges ‘enforcement’ against businesses that don’t comply
The governor also announced that ADHS had issued new guidance for businesses on social distancing, disinfection and other measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. Though businesses were theoretically supposed to abide by such policies following the expiration of Ducey’s stay-at-home order on May 15, some have simply ignored them. Scottsdale nightclubs have been packed, with unmasked patrons crammed together, and Mill Avenues bars have continued to be hot spots in Tempe.
Ducey vowed that businesses will have to abide by the new restrictions.
“If they don’t, there will be enforcement. They will be held accountable,” he said.
Christ said enforcement will be divided between ADHS, local law enforcement and regulatory entities that oversee various businesses.
“So, while they may not all fall under DHS’s purview, DHS is making the recommendations,” Christ said.
In addition, Ducey said he would activate the Arizona National Guard to assist with contact tracing. He said contact tracing will be primarily handled by the counties, with state resources and the aid of 300 National Guardsmen.
Ducey reversed course on other recent aspects of his COVID-19 policy, as well. He has long insisted that the state’s dramatic spike in coronavirus cases was due to an increase in testing, though medical experts argued that testing alone wasn’t responsible, pointing to increasing percentages of positive tests and increasing numbers of Arizonans who were hospitalized with the virus.
The governor acknowledged that he said two weeks ago that there was no trend in new COVID infections, a statement he made as others pointed out a clear rise in confirmed cases. On Wednesday, he said, “There is a trend, and the trend is headed in the wrong direction.”
And while increased testing is partly responsible for the increase in confirmed cases, Ducey said it’s not the only culprit, conceding that the virus is spreading in Arizona.
“We know that COVID-19 is widespread in our community,” he said.
Ducey’s about-face came amid increasingly grim news regarding Arizona’s coronavirus outbreak.
As of Wednesday, Arizona had seen a total of nearly 41,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with the top two daily totals since the outbreak began coming the previous two days. The state set a new record for total hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients on Wednesday. Arizona on Wednesday had the second-highest average of positive COVID-19 tests over the past two weeks of all 50 states. And hospital capacity, the number that Ducey has recently cited as the most important data point, stood at 85 percent of all in-patient beds filled, along with 83 percent of intensive care unit beds.
Earlier in the day, Dr. Joshua LaBaer, the head of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, which has been tracking COVID-19 data in the state, released the most recent findings of a university modeling team. The team estimated that, based on recent trends, Arizona would double the total number of coronavirus infections soon, reaching 80,000 by July 15 at the latest if additional steps to mitigate the spread weren’t taken. The modeling team also projected that Arizona could exceed its hospital capacity by late June, though LaBaer disputed that finding.
Ducey defended his decision to allow his stay-at-home order to expire last month, saying Arizona met federal criteria for reopening at the time. The university COVID-19 modeling team wrote in its latest report that the state did not actually meet the criteria established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and should not have reopened so early.
The governor also defended his decision not to impose restrictions earlier on or even directly after his stay-at-home order expired, though Arizona’s rise in COVID-19 cases became noticeable within weeks of the order’s expiration.
“I imagine in a setting like this that hindsight’s always going to be 20/20. We’re going to make the best possible decision we can every day, informed by public health and Arizona’s numbers,” Ducey said.
Cities acting quickly on mask requirements
Several mayors quickly announced their intention to take advantage of their newfound abilities.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego wrote on Twitter that the Phoenix City Council will vote on a mandatory mask policy at its next meeting.
“The Governor has stated that he believes that the ‘government closest to the people’ is the most effective. We agree, and we hope that the expertise of cities is considered as we continue our fight against a virus that has killed too many Arizonans,” wrote Gallego, who said she will support a citywide mask mandate.
Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane, whose city has received a plethora of press coverage, both inside and outside Arizona, for the lack of compliance with social distancing guidelines, said his city is exploring the possibility of a face mask mandate, though he said the city is “trying to be a little bit more inventive than that because of the enforcement issues that are incumbent in all of that.”
Lane said he’s speaking with health care officials, city attorneys and business owners about how they can assist with enforcement. He said Scottsdale’s primary focus right now is figuring out what the city needs to do to ensure compliance with mask and distancing guidelines, and determining whether some businesses should even be operating.
“Right now, the enforcement element is really what we’re bumping up against. And here in Scottsdale, our biggest problem, at least to this point in time, has been crowds in the street, whether it’s from the demonstrations and/or the entertainment district,” Lane told the Arizona Mirror.
Maricopa County officials haven’t discussed the possibility of a mask mandate yet, according to spokesman Fields Mosley, but the issue is likely to come during a call with county supervisors on Thursday. Mosley said it’s unclear whether the Board of Supervisors could impose such a mandate across the county, or whether it would apply only in unincorporated areas.
Supervisor Steve Gallardo, the lone Democrat on the Board of Supervisors, wrote on Twitter that all counties, as well as all cities, should implement mask mandates immediately.