Gov. Doug Ducey will not enact a statewide mask mandate or other new restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 as the state faces rising case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths from the disease amid a nationwide resurgence of the coronavirus.
In his first press conference in nearly three weeks, the governor asked Arizonans to redouble the efforts they’ve been taking over the past eight months, such as wearing face masks and social distancing when in public. With the pandemic worsening in Arizona, he emphasized that the COVID outbreak is far from over.
“I know many in our state are asking, when will it end? The answer is, that’s not on the horizon,” Ducey said. “Getting back to normal isn’t in the cards right now.”
Ducey said he didn’t think a statewide mask mandate would be effective, and noted that most of the state is already under local requirements. He also rejected the idea of school closures, saying students have already missed enough class time, though many districts are now returning to virtual learning due to coronavirus outbreaks. And he emphasized that restaurants, bars and movie theaters are operating at reduced capacity, and said new restrictions aren’t needed.
One major concern is the Thanksgiving holiday, which has prompted some states to enact new restrictions. Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, opened the press conference by laying out the agency’s new guidance for Thanksgiving. ADHS is recommending that people eat Thanksgiving dinner outdoors, wear masks, socially distance and keep their gatherings small. People who have been recently exposed to COVID or are at higher risk should celebrate virtually, Christ said.
Governors across the country are ratcheting up restrictions in advance of the holiday.
Ducey too urged caution, though he didn’t issue any new restrictions for Arizona.
“Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and I want everyone to enjoy it safely,” Ducey said.
Thanksgiving isn’t the only season event that’s cause for concern. Ducey noted that visitors from the Midwest, East Coast and elsewhere are now descending on Arizona, an annual exercise as people flock from colder climates to take advantage of the state’s mild winters. To help limit the spread of COVID from snowbirds arriving in Arizona, Ducey said ADHS will work with major airports in the state to provide on-premise testing sites as soon as possible where arrivees can get tested with a quick turnaround.
But Ducey flatly rejected the idea of another lockdown, like the broad closure of many businesses that he imposed in March.
“Some straight talk. There are two extreme and distinct camps out there. One side wants to lock everything down. The other side thinks it’s all a hoax. Both are loud and vocal. Most of the public isn’t part of either camp. And, by the way, neither am I,” Ducey said.
And while the governor stressed that masks are the most effective tool available to stop the spread of the virus, Ducey made clear that he does not believe a statewide mask mandate wouldn’t be effective. Most of the state is already under a mandate from cities or counties. And such requirements are only effective if there’s local buy-in, he said.
Over the summer, Arizona’s COVID-19 outbreak was among the worst in the country. Today, the state’s situation is getting worse, but the biggest hot spots are in other states, Ducey noted.
Arizona’s numbers began rising in September after a drop-off that followed the implementation of local mask mandates — requirements that Ducey had previously banned cities and counties from enacting — and renewed enforcement of restrictions in bars, restaurants and other businesses. On Wednesday, ADHS reported 3,206 new cases and 53 deaths, among the highest numbers Arizona has seen since the post-summer decline. Total hospitalizations have been on the rise as well, and available capacity at hospitals across the state is dwindling.
Last week, all but two counties met benchmarks signifying substantial community spread, Christ pointed out.
“These metrics are heading in the wrong direction,” Christ said.
Despite the worsening situation, there was some cause for optimism, and Ducey struck a hopeful note while discussing recent COVID vaccine trials.
“Some hope and a positive light at the end of a tunnel. The news of the successful vaccines is very positive and optimistic. I want Arizona to be prepared and I’ll commit to you that Arizona will be prepared,” the governor said.
Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have both tested vaccines that were more than 90% effective in clinical trials, and those vaccines could be made available to the public before the end of the year. Ducey issued an executive order Wednesday to collect information needed to prepare for the eventual distribution of those vaccines.
Though he announced no new restrictions, the governor announced some additional steps he and his administration are taking to help alleviate the COVID crisis.
Ducey announced that he’s directing $25 million in federal funding from the CARES Act to hospitals for staffing issues, which they can use to pay for staff costs that have increased due to higher demand and reward current employees with bonuses. The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association praised the move.
“Having been through a surge in COVID-19 cases over the summer when hospital beds were stretched to near capacity and our healthcare heroes were pushed to their emotional and physical limits, we are optimistic this funding will help Arizona hospitals shore up the staff needed to care for our family, friends and loved ones in the coming months,” the association said in a press statement.
Earlier in the day, Joshua LaBaer, the executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, said the extent of the crisis in the rest of the country is making it more difficult for Arizona to attract new health care workers to the state. Over the summer, when Arizona’s outbreak was worse than most other states, it was able to import nurses. Now, with other states faring worse than Arizona, that’s more difficult to do, he said.
The governor was adamant that schools should be allowed to remain open for in-person instruction, saying students have already missed enough learning due to the pandemic. Some school districts have decided on their own to move back to online learning as the virus has spread. But ADHS is issuing new guidance to ensure that schools, which are already under a mask mandate, require mask usage on campus and on school buses.
Ducey emphasized that state agencies are taking steps to combat the COVID outbreak. He said the Arizona Department of Transportation is taking steps to serve more customers online or over the phone, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry is expanding testing to all inmates and staff, and the Department of Veterans’ Services is working to keep residents of veterans’ homes connected with their loved ones.
Some officials, like Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who called on the governor to issue a statewide mandate in her State of the City address on Tuesday, were critical of Ducey’s decision.
“I’m deeply disappointed that today Gov. Doug Ducey did not implement a statewide mask policy. Public health officials and physicians agree, masks are the number one step we can take today to protect our public health. The virus is surging in Arizona. Our health care leaders are very worried about capacity. We have the chance to save lives,” Gallego said in a video posted to her Twitter feed.
LaBaer also suggested earlier in the day that a mask mandate might be effective, telling reporters, “I would certainly consider that. In public places, a mask mandate would be great.”