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Pima County close to meeting metrics for gyms, theaters, some bars to reopen
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Pima County close to meeting metrics for gyms, theaters, some bars to reopen

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Students in the “Let’s Spin” class rode their stationary bikes outdoors at Let’s Sweat, 439 N. Sixth Ave., on Aug. 19, 2020. The fitness studio and gym moved its classes outdoors and limited class sizes in order to adhere to coronavirus disease guidelines. But data from the state health department shows Pima County now meets two of three state-set benchmarks for gyms to reopen, and new numbers Thursday might pave the way. 

Arizonans waiting to get back into exercise routines in gyms may not have to wait much longer. Same if they’re hoping to go to theaters, and even to some bars.

Such businesses in Cochise, Coconino, Greenlee, La Paz and Yavapai counties already can reopen, providing they follow certain health protocols, pandemic data from the Arizona Department of Health Services shows. Those steps include everything from physical distancing and mask requirements to enhanced cleaning procedures, and for bars to operate more like restaurants.

The state has set limits of 25% capacity for gyms and 50% for movie theaters and bars.

Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties are just one benchmark shy of hitting the numbers for such businesses to reopen, an analysis of statistics by Capitol Media Services shows.

That could happen Thursday, when the latest COVID-19 figures are released.

As a result, all the legal wrangling over whether the state is being arbitrary about who can open and who cannot during the pandemic could disappear for much of the state.

One chain, which has been waging a court battle with the health department, is not waiting for the new numbers Thursday to see whether it can legally allow customers. Mountainside Fitness of the Phoenix area announced Tuesday it intends to reopen at 4:30 a.m. that morning — with or without the state’s blessing and regardless of whether the health department finds that coronavirus conditions in Maricopa County have reached the “moderate” level.

Mountainside CEO Tom Hatten, said he has provided “third-party certification … supported by medical professionals” that the company’s 18 facilities are safe to reopen. But the state health department has so far denied his request to reopen.

He isn’t alone. The latest figures from the health department show it has denied 99 requests by gyms and fitness centers to reopen; another 90 locations have been given the go-ahead.

Hatten, accusing the state of “subjective enforcement,” said he is not going to wait.

If he follows through, that puts the burden on the health department to decide what to do next. There was no immediate response.

Hatten has had some luck in court. He got a judge to order the state to provide a “roadmap” of sorts to show when it is safe for various kinds of businesses to reopen automatically, and under what conditions, as well as an appeals process for those who seek a waiver.

It is that roadmap that will allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25% capacity if individual counties pass a three-part test.

First, there have to be two weeks where there are fewer than 100 COVID-19 cases for every 100,000 residents. It also requires that fewer than 10% of tests for the virus come back positive for two weeks straight. The final benchmark is that fewer than 10% of people showing up at hospitals have COVID-like symptoms. The most recent data posted on the health department’s website indicated Pima County still needed to meet the first test.

All 15 counties meet the last category, with five hitting the other two benchmarks. What’s left now is to see when the other 10 counties can reach the same levels.

Nothing that’s happening in any of the counties will lead to the reopening of bars and nightclubs, at least not the way they used to operate with dancing, standing around and chatting, or hanging around the pool tables.

The standards set by the health department prohibit these establishments from reopening with those practices until all three benchmarks in a county reach what the state considers “minimal” levels. That means fewer than 10 cases per 100,000, fewer than 5% of test results coming back positive, and fewer than 5% of hospital visits by patients with COVID-like symptoms.

And no county is even close.

There is a way around that, though.

Bars will be allowed to open in any county where the levels of infection have reached just the moderate standard, the same one that will allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25% capacity.

But they would have to convert to what the health department calls “restaurant service.”

That doesn’t mean no alcohol. What it does mean is customers escorted to tables, groups limited to no more than 10, no standing or mingling, and limited waiting areas. And forget dancing.

Under those conditions, the facility could have up to 50% occupancy.

Schools and in-person instruction present a different set of issues.

They use the same benchmarks for number of cases at fewer than 100 per 100,000 residents and that 10% standard for hospital visits. But it requires that the percentage of tests for the virus turning up positive is below 7 for two weeks — not 10% like for businesses.

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