Ducey limits restaurant dining, but resists tougher COVID-19 measures




covid 19 press conference
Gov. Doug Ducey talks about an executive order as he speaks about the coronavirus pandemic at a news conference July 9, 2020. Photo by Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press | Pool photo

Amid what continues to be one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country, Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he’s limiting in-person dining at restaurants in Arizona but not shutting it down entirely, resisting calls for stricter measures despite his own acknowledgement that increased economic activity correlates with the spread of the virus.

Ducey on Thursday announced that he had issued a new executive order limiting indoor dining at restaurants to less than 50% of their capacity, as determined by the fire code. The governor had previously issued recommendations calling for similar limitations, but that guidance was nonbinding. 

The new regulation will be enforced by the Arizona Department of Health Services, county health officials and local law enforcement, Ducey said. 

Restaurants will be required to maintain at least six feet between tables. They also must eliminate areas where standing patrons can congregate. And buffets, cafeteria-style and self-serve dining is prohibited.

At the start of his weekly press conference, Ducey implored Arizonans to stay home whenever possible and to wear masks while out to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. He also repeatedly noted that Arizona’s COVID spike began two- to three weeks after he let his stay-at-home order expire, a decision that many have blamed for the growing outbreak in Arizona. 

“The more activity that is happening in our economy, the more the spread will continue,” Ducey said.

The governor said Arizona has had a “brutal June” marked by significant spikes in COVID infections, and said the percentage of people who test positive for the virus is still far too high. According to Johns Hopkins University, Arizona’s two-week average for the percentage of COVID tests that turn out positive is nearly 27%, the worst of the 50 states.

Ducey also said Arizona is still in its time of “maximum challenge” and that he didn’t know what the future would hold. 

“We’re seeing some progress in Arizona,” the governor said, though he warned, “We simply can’t let up.”

Ducey passes on additional restrictions

Nonetheless, Ducey didn’t see the need for additional restrictions, such as completely halting in-person dining in restaurants, as California did in 19 counties last week, or imposing a statewide mask mandate, as Texas and other states have recently done

After weeks of spikes in new COVID-19 cases, Ducey said Arizona has seen that trend flatten in recent days, which he attributed to policies such as his June 29 order closing bars, gyms and other types of businesses, as well as restricting gatherings of more than 50 people, and his decision in late June to allow cities and counties to implement their ordinances requiring people to wear masks in public.

Pressed by reporters why he wasn’t implementing stronger restrictions, as he did throughout April and the first half of May, Ducey said “this is what we’re doing now,” though he noted that he has “options” to do more at a later date.

Ducey also pointed to a statistic known as R-naught, which gauges how many people each COVID patient is likely to infect with the virus. Ten days ago, that number for Arizona was 1.18, and Ducey noted that the number on Thursday had dropped to 1.10. The goal, he said, is to get that number below one.

“I want people to know their actions and their decisions can affect the spread of this disease,” he said.

Ducey isn’t alone in noting a flattening in new COVID-19 cases over the past few days. Joshua LaBaer, the head of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, told reporters on Wednesday that there was a plateau in the number of new cases in the state, though he said the 3,500 or so new cases Arizona is seeing per day is still far too high.

It remains to be seen whether that trend will continue. There are sometimes lags in reporting, and some of the new cases reported each day by the Arizona Department of Health Services are reassigned to previous days as more information becomes available.

While Arizona’s case numbers rose dramatically, the rest of the country didn’t see a similar trend. But as Arizona has seen a small decrease over the past few days, Ducey said the United States as a whole is now seeing rapid increases.

“It’s possible that Arizona was the front of that wave of increases in these cases. And the actions that we’re taking can be the way for our state to navigate forward,” the governor said.

At one point in his press conference, Ducey presented a chart listing various activities categorized by their likelihood of spread COVID-19. Some of the highest-risk activities, such as going to casinos, are still permitted, while much lower-risk activities like tubing on the Salt River are now prohibited.

Asked whether he’s being inconsistent in his decisions on which business must close and which can stay open, Ducey said he’ll soon issue additional guidance “that will target and allow other industries to operate, but to operate more safely.”

Ducey said future decisions about how to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak will not be influenced by politics or by a desire to please the news media, responding to a string of negative headlines about his failures to manage the crisis in local and national media outlets. He repeated his recent vow to try to protect both lives and livelihoods, but to err on the side of lives.

Future of classroom instruction unclear

Ducey earlier this month mandated that students couldn’t return to campus for the new K-12 school year until Aug. 17, though schools can begin online instruction before that. But many educators are skeptical that it will be safe for students to go back to school at that point. 

As of Thursday evening, more than five dozen school board members had signed a letter to Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman asking that schools be permitted to conduct online-only education through Oct. 1. Save Our Schools Arizona, an advocacy group that formed to defeat a 2018 expansion of Arizona’s voucher-style Empowerment Scholarship Account program, made a similar demand.

Conversely, President Donald Trump has insisted that schools must reopen on time for the 2020-21 school year, and has threatened to withhold federal funding for those who keep their schools closed. 

Ducey reiterated that the Aug. 17 start date is “aspirational” and is subject to change, saying we’ll know more in about 10 days. But he said he wouldn’t be swayed by threats from the president, with whom Ducey said he has a good relationship and has spoken to frequently during the pandemic.

“I stand by what I said. There aren’t going to be any politics around the pandemic played by the governor’s office, period,” Ducey said. “I’m going to do what’s in the best interest of Arizona.”

The governor also announced a new plan to increase testing in conjunction with private sector partners and the federal government, which he dubbed “Project Catapult.” The state has conducted about 8,000 to 12,000 tests per day over the past few weeks, and has never tested more than about 16,000 people in a day. He said Project Catapult calls for 35,000 tests per day by the end of July and 60,000 per day by the end of August.