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Arizona health director: State not following all federal task-force COVID-19 recommendations
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Arizona health director: State not following all federal task-force COVID-19 recommendations

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State Health Director Cara Christ, speaking here recently with Gov. Doug Ducey, testified Monday at a hearing over a lawsuit brought by fitness centers over Ducey’s orders that they remain closed.

PHOENIX — The state’s top health official acknowledged that she and Gov. Doug Ducey are ignoring some Arizona-specific recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

At a court hearing Monday, Dr. Cara Christ agreed that the latest report from the task force says the state should require masks of all individuals. Instead, the governor, after specifically refusing to issue a mask order — and even barring cities and counties from imposing their own — finally left that decision to local officials. That same report also says Arizona should limit indoor dining to less than 25% normal capacity. But Ducey is allowing restaurants to serve up to half of the regular seating.

What makes all that relevant is that Christ testified she and Ducey decided to keep gyms and fitness centers closed based on those same task-force recommendations — recommendations that, in this case, they decided to follow.

But under questioning, Christ conceded that Dr. Debroah Birx, coordinator of the White House task force, was probably not aware when those recommendations to keep gyms and fitness centers closed were released that her agency already had crafted some protocols that, if followed, would allow them to reopen in safe fashion. Yet even with that, Ducey and Christ have decided these facilities have to remain closed.

All that is relevant as Joel Sannes, attorney for Mountainside Fitness, seeks to convince Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomason to overrule the order that keeps the doors shut for not only his client but another approximately 900 similar facilities around the state.

In essence, Sannes is arguing that Ducey and Christ are picking and choosing which task force recommendations they want to follow. He said there is no “rational basis” to keep gyms and fitness centers closed if they can comply with the very protocols that Ducey directed the Department of Health Services to craft. That came with a promise they could serve customers again as early as July 27 if they agreed to follow those standards.

But the governor instead decided to keep the closures in place, regardless of whether they agreed to follow the guidance.

Sannes isn’t the only one attacking the governor’s decision.

In questioning Christ, Robert Zelms, attorney for EoS Fitness, argued that there have been no instances of anyone in Arizona contracting COVID-19 from one of these facilities. She conceded the point, but with a caveat.

“I can’t say, though, that that’s 100% accurate,” Christ said. “I may just not be aware of them.”

Those protocols her agency crafted are fairly specific. They include:

  • Mandated use of masks or cloth face coverings for all guests;
  • Operate at 25% or less capacity;
  • Implement temperature checks or symptom screening at the door;
  • Require reservations for fitness classes to limit the number attending;
  • Provide hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, tissues and no-touch trash cans.

But Christ, whose agency crafted the protocols, told the judge she is still not convinced that gyms and fitness centers can operate safely — even if they follow them.

“The person who has COVID-19, if they are breathing vigorously, they can actually concentrate the virus in droplets that could land on surfaces,” she said. “It also allows the droplet to transmit farther.”

Those who are not infected, Christ said, are breathing deeper — and often through their mouths — which allow the particles to get farther into the respiratory system.

And Christ said face coverings don’t eliminate the risk.

“We know that masks are not 100% effective,” she testified. “So there’s an inherent risk, even when the guidelines are put into place.”

But Sannes told the judge that, even if that is the case, that’s still no reason to shutter bars and gyms, especially when so many other kinds of places can remain open.

He said, for example, that Ducey’s order keeps bars closed on the basis that they provide opportunities for unmasked people to spread the virus. But Sannes pointed out there are about 4,000 establishments in the state that do serve alcohol for on-premises consumption: restaurants with liquor licenses.

“Those 4,000 bars can continue to be open because they serve burgers,” he said. “That is the height of the definition of arbitrary.”

Brett Johnson, the governor’s attorney, told Thomason he should defer to the decisions made by Christ and Ducey.

He specifically urged the judge to disregard the conclusions of former Health Director Will Humble, now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, who said that any gym or fitness center that operated according to the protocols would be no more dangerous than people going to a grocery store or doing any other kind of shopping.

“He’s not a professional or a doctor or anybody who has medical experience,” Johnson said. And he said it’s not fair to compare gyms and fitness centers with grocery and retail stores.

“You can’t get food at a health facility,” Johnson said. By contrast, he argued, there are alternatives to the kinds of services provided by places like Mountainside Fitness.

“You can run outside at 5 in the morning, take walks in the evening,” Johnson said. “You can do virtual exercises,” he continued. “We have to be able to get our food.”

Thomason said he hopes to have a ruling Tuesday.

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On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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The guidelines take into consideration the percentage of residents who test positive, the percentage of people showing up at hospitals with coronavirus symptoms and the rate of infection. However, nothing in the standards is mandatory. Local school officials are free to reopen even while infections rates are high — or remain closed even past the point when the risk is minimal.

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