‘Brutal’ COVID-19 numbers mean more shut-downs, delay in school year

By: - June 29, 2020 6:08 pm
ducey covid-19 press conference June 29

Gov. Doug Ducey updates reporters on COVID-19 during a news conference in Phoenix June 29, 2020. Ducey ordered the closing of bars, gyms, theaters, waterparks and tubing. Photo by Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic | Pool photo

As Arizona’s COVID-19 cases continue to climb, the state’s bars and nightclubs have once again been ordered closed, and Gov. Doug Ducey said the “brutal facts” mean that students won’t be returning to school until mid-August, at the earliest.

At a press conference on Monday, Ducey announced that bars, gyms, movie theaters, water parks and Salt River tubing will all be closed for 30 days. On paper, bars have been ordered closed since March, but many have remained open, with packed Scottsdale nightclubs and Mill Avenue hotspots becoming symbols of lax enforcement since the governor’s stay-at-home order expired on May 15.

Ducey’s new executive order will also prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people, and the Arizona Department of Liquor License and Control will cease issuing licenses for special events. However, cities and counties can approve larger gatherings, provided that physical distancing and other safety measures are enforced. Gatherings of more than 10 people at public and private pools, such as those at hotels and apartment complexes, are also banned.

In addition, Ducey said the 2020-21 school year won’t begin until at least Aug 17, which he described as an “aspirational date” that is subject to change, depending on the circumstances. Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced in late May that the school year would begin on schedule, which for some meant mid-July. 

Ducey left open the possibility that the start of the school could be pushed back further than Aug. 17 if necessary.

“We don’t know what’s in front of us in July and August. Of course it can change. I would think that Arizonans wouldn’t think that it’s in the pioneering spirit that we have that we would just throw in the towel and say let’s wait until 2021. Of course options are on the table,” he said.

All of the timelines that Ducey announced Monday could change if the COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t improve. And the governor emphasized that, for now, things are still getting worse.

“I’ve asked for a lot of patience. And I’m going to ask for some more patience as we go forward,” Ducey said before announcing the new restrictions, which he said would help “contain this virus and get back on track.”

“To do that, we will have to persevere. And it’s going to be for some time into the future.”

The new restrictions are the first that Ducey has implemented since permitting cities and counties earlier this month to enact their own requirements that people wear masks in public places. Those requirements now cover about 75% of the state, Ducey said last week.

COVID-19 will get worse before it gets better

Ducey urged Arizonans to brace for continuing bad news for the next couple weeks. Much as it took a few weeks to see increasing COVID-19 infections after the state reopened in May, Ducey said it will take weeks to the benefits of the new restrictions. 

The governor repeatedly implored Arizonans to wear masks while out in public and to practice physical distancing when they go out. And he emphasized several times that people are safer at home and shouldn’t go out if it can be avoided.

“We simply cannot let up. This is a time for us to put on a … full-court press as a state. We can’t be under any illusion that this virus is going to go away on its own,” Ducey said. “Over time, we’ll see reductions and not increases. That’s the goal. 

“It will not happen overnight. But it will happen.”

As of Monday, Arizona had confirmed 74,533 COVID-19 cases and had 1,588 deaths from the virus, according to ADHS.

Ducey’s new rules follow actions by other governors whose states are seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases after reopening, including Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, both of whom have ordered bars closed in recent days.

‘Crisis care’ plans implemented for hospitals

Due to dwindling hospital capacity, the Arizona Department of Health Services enacted its statewide crisis standards of care plan, the agency’s director, Dr. Cara Christ, said at the press conference. 

That would allow hospitals to take additional steps to manage the surging caseloads they’re seeing, including making decisions about who receives care and who doesn’t based on how sick they are and how likely they are to survive.

Christ said ADHS is asking hospitals to prepare to use their surge capacity plans. For those that determine they’ve reached crisis levels, she said the agency is asking that they halt all surgeries except for emergency procedures that don’t impair the care of other patients.

“This is being put proactively into place, so that hospitals who are on their own individual trajectory can implement these standards if necessary,” Christ said.

On Friday, Dignity Health and Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital network, both implemented their surge capacity plans. According to data from ADHS, 2,721 patients are currently hospitalized in Arizona due to COVID-19, a record number since the pandemic began. Eighty-four percent of in-patient beds and 88% of intensive care unit beds are in use.

Ban on large gatherings, explained

The new restrictions come days before the July 4 holiday weekend. Ducey and Christ urged people to stay home and avoid large gatherings, celebrating only with members of their households and people with whom they are already in regular contact, and to celebrate primarily outdoors, where transmission of the virus is less likely.

Not all large gatherings will be subject to the new restrictions. Religious and political gatherings — President Donald Trump spoke to several thousand in Phoenix last week, while thousands have protested in recent weeks following the killing of an unarmed Black man by a Minneapolis police officer in late May — will still be permitted, Ducey confirmed.

“The Constitution remains the supreme law of the land in Arizona,” Ducey said. 

Ducey said enforcement of the new regulations will be largely up to local government entities, though the state liquor department will have a role, as well. 

Last week, Scottsdale charged the Riot House bar with violating social distancing requirements, while the state liquor department sent “final notices” on Wednesday to that bar and seven others. 

According to Reuters, people packed together for tubing on the Salt River over the weekend. And people posted videos on social media of a packed bar on Mill Avenue in Tempe, where few, if any people appeared to be following masking or social distancing requirements. 

Det. Natalie Barela, a spokeswoman for the Tempe Police Department, said officers spoke with a couple businesses on Mill Avenue over the weekend about compliance with the city’s mask mandate, but issued no citations and made no arrests.

“We really want to take the educational approach and encourage people to wear the mask,” Barela said.

The shutdown of bars won’t apply to restaurants that serve alcohol. The executive order applies only to establishments Series 6 or 7 liquor licenses and whose business is primarily to serve or sell alcohol. Ducey said that would stop bars that serve food from exploiting the loophole in his previous executive order.

“We’re fixing it,” he said of the problems in his previous order. “We’re going to continue to adjust based on what the information and the data is.”

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”