Arizona businesses are now free to open their doors to all comers — but social distancing and masking rules still apply.
In an executive order Friday, Gov. Doug Ducey lifted pandemic restrictions he had placed on how many customers can be in restaurants, theaters, gyms and water parks. Until now they had to limit occupancy to no more than 50%; for gyms and fitness centers it was 25%.
However, all these facilities will still be required to keep individuals or groups at least 6 feet from one another, said Dr. Cara Christ, the state health director.
She acknowledged that, in many cases, this will continue to prevent establishments from returning to the number of customers they had before the restrictions were imposed last year.
“It doesn’t probably allow 100% to 110% of the capacity,” she said. “But it will increase them a bit above their current ability.”
As for bars, only those that effectively have converted to restaurants — meaning they offer sit-down food service — are freed from the occupancy limits to the extent they can allow more customers.
Traditional bars where people can mingle and dance remain entirely shuttered, Christ said, at least until the rate of COVID-19 spread is reduced further.
Ducey’s order also allows spring training and other major-league sports to once again accept spectators at their games.
But the stands won’t be filled. In each of those cases, the teams will need to have a plan approved by Christ’s department.
For example, she said, the Arizona Diamondbacks have agreed to set up “seating pods” for groups of fans, with 6 feet in between those pods. That likely will keep capacity to about 25% of the number of seats available, Christ said.
At whatever capacity businesses manage to operate, Ducey’s order keeps in place requirements for employees and customers to wear masks. The only exception, Christ said, is when people are eating and drinking.
Major hospitals oppose the changes
Christ said she agrees with Ducey’s decision to relax the occupancy standards.
“We still need Arizonans to take those same precautions, which are remaining 6 feet away from people you do not live with, wearing a mask whenever you are with people you do not live with, and then making sure you’re washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick,” she said.
However, Friday’s announcement caught executives of the state’s major hospitals by surprise. And they don’t agree with it.
“The COVID-19 mitigation strategies throughout the state are reasonable and evidence-based,” said Lorna Romero. She is the spokeswoman for the Health System Alliance of Arizona that includes Banner Health, Dignity Health, HonorHealth, Northern Arizona Healthcare and Tenet Healthcare, which together operate more than 80 hospitals and medical facilities across the state.
“Now is not the time to relax our mitigation efforts,” Romero said in a prepared statement. “We must stay the course to ensure that our vaccination efforts can outpace the spread of the virus.”
Ducey’s order comes less than two months after Arizona set a record of more than 170 coronavirus deaths per day. While the trend has generally been downward since then, the state added another 84 deaths Friday, raising the total to 16,269.
But Christ said a closer examination of the post-Christmas spike suggests the restrictions that were lifted on Friday are not necessary.
“It wasn’t necessarily the establishments or the occupancy limits that had an impact,” she said. “It was those people gathering in those small, private settings where people were letting the masking and the physical distancing down.”
Fewer than 5% of tests for the virus are now coming back positive.
And about 1.3 million Arizonans already have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with more than 711,000 now having full protection, Christ said.
That, however, leaves the fact that about 5 million Arizonans have no COVID-19 immunity, other than those who may have recovered from the virus. Christ said that is why the new executive order does not relax the other requirements like wearing a mask and distancing.
“All of the other mitigation strategies remain in place which are proven to slow the transmission,” Christ said. She said the state is taking “appropriate steps forward.”
“Now, this is not a return to normal,” she stressed. “It’s just going to take the capacity limits off those establishments.”
House Republicans challenge the mask rule
The ongoing requirement for affected establishments to keep masks in place comes as the Republican-led Arizona House of Representatives, on a party line vote earlier this week, approved a measure to allow all business owners to decide whether employees and customers have to comply.
That measure, House Bill 2770, now awaits action in the GOP-led Senate.
Approval — assuming Ducey were to agree — would undermine the strategy announced Friday of no occupancy limits as long as people wear the masks.
“We hope that everyone takes our guidance and wears a mask whenever they are around people they don’t live with,” Christ responded when asked about the measure. “But I can’t comment right now on pending legislation.”
Ducey’s new order makes it clear that local officials are still precluded from enacting what he calls their own “extreme” restrictions. These include curfews and mask mandates beyond what are required for businesses, according to a spokesman for the governor.
What to expect in vaccination schedules
More than half of Arizonans 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with more than 19% being fully vaccinated, Christ said.
That is significant, she said, as those in the 65- to 74-year-old age group are 35 times more likely than young people — defined as age 5 to 17 — to require hospitalization and 1,100 times more likely to die because of COVID-19.
The multipliers are even higher for those 75 and older.
She also said the state’s supply of vaccines is increasing.
Arizona anticipates getting close to 324,000 doses this coming week, she said. That is being helped along by the state being in line for 57,000 doses of the new Janssen vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.
Earlier this week, the state health department opened the door for counties that have adequate supplies to start vaccinating anyone 55 and older given their higher-than-average risk of contracting the virus.
However, Pima County is among counties that have not yet opened the door to the 55-64 age group. Those ages 65 and older are eligible to be vaccinated in Pima County.
With additional vaccine coming to the state, Christ expects to finish inoculating within three to four weeks all those who want to be who are in priority groups, whether by occupation or age.
Then, in April, she said those 45 and older who aren’t already vaccinated should become eligible, moving to the 35-plus category at the beginning of May. Finally, anyone at least 16 — the minimum age allowed under current standards — should be able to get immunized in May.
In the meantime, she said, it is up to counties to decide which front-line essential workers get to be vaccinated, regardless of age, as long as they have sufficient vaccine.
For example, Christ said, Maricopa County might choose to target grocery-store workers while Yuma County might decide agricultural workers should get priority.