PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey is telling cities and counties to fully open their parks to all comers this Easter weekend or face consequences.
In a sharply worded letter Friday, Ducey told Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego that Phoenix’s decision to close city parks Saturday and Sunday to large gatherings violates state law.
Ducey’s argument is that he assumed some absolute powers when he declared a pandemic emergency, and that those powers allow him to order reopening of parks and other facilities.
Beyond that, Ducey said his order is consistent with guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ignoring those recommendations is “irrational,” he said.
The letter was not just a complaint. Ducey said that, based on his emergency powers, he is “demanding” the city open its parks.
But this is bigger than a spat between the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor. Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said Friday that all communities must have their parks fully open this weekend, with no restrictions.
And if they do not? “All options are on the table,” Karamargin said.
So far, though, Tucson is keeping its already announced Easter restrictions at city parks. Those include closure of the large ramadas — small and medium ramadas were open for reservations — and required masks where physical distancing is not possible. Tucson also asks people not to gather in groups larger than 10 at its parks.
Ducey also is setting the stage to have someone to blame if there is a post-Easter increase in COVID-19 cases.
He argued that, in keeping large family gatherings out of parks, Phoenix was in effect pushing them inside, where the chance of virus spread is greater. In doing that, Phoenix was “condemning people to their homes” which will further the spread of the virus, he said.
What Ducey did not say in his letter is that, open parks or not, there already are indications of a “fourth wave” of the virus, including in Arizona, especially with the virus mutating into new, more transmissible strains. State health officials reported another 940 new cases Friday and 12 new deaths, bringing the tally up to 16,989.
Gallego, who has crossed swords with Ducey over other COVID-related issues like mask mandates, responded later Friday. She pointed out that the issue Ducey is choosing to make an issue of, right before the holiday weekend, is hardly new.
“It is no surprise, given how slowly you respond to changing events, that only now do you have an opinion about a unanimous bipartisan decision the Phoenix City Council made several weeks ago,” she wrote back to Ducey.
Gallego said that March 16 plan to limit large gatherings by closing parking lots and prohibiting public grilling at parks was based on “evidence-based recommendations” to the council.
“These measures have been widely publicized since they were enacted several weeks ago,” Gallego wrote.
Politics and health issues aside, the mayor also said the governor is legally wrong about his authority.
“You misread your own executive orders, of which, admittedly, there have been many,” Gallego said. She pointed out that one of his orders, still in effect, spells out that cities and counties are free “to control their own properties” and “to set and enforce mitigation policies.”
“The city of Phoenix and its residents — not the governor of Arizona — own and operate the city parks at issue here,” Gallego said.
As to the CDC recommendations, Gallego acknowledged the latest guidelines tell people that if they plan to celebrate with others, outside is safer than indoors. But she said that is cherry-picking what the agency said.
“The same guidance you selectively cite begins with recommendations that people ‘gather virtually’ or ‘with people who live with you,’” the mayor said. Only after listing more recommendations does the CDC say that if people do plan to celebrate, outdoors is better than indoors.
“That same guidance goes on to reiterate the need to ‘wear a mask indoors and outdoors,’” Gallego wrote, a point the governor did not include in his letter to her.