PHOENIX — Saying he’s seeing some positive trends, Gov. Doug Ducey agreed Monday to loosen the reins a little bit more on the state’s economy.
Come this Friday, people will once again be able to go to barber shops and beauty salons. But there will be restrictions, ranging from capacity limits to masks, physical distancing and, depending on the size of the shop, perhaps business by appointment only.
And Monday restaurants will be able to offer sit-down dining. But here, too, look for limits on the number of people inside at any one time.
Eventually, he promised, fitness studios as well as gyms and pools at apartment complexes, hotels and motels will open but had no firm date. Ditto everything else from bars to movie theaters.
There was no mention of tattoo studios and massage parlors.
What’s behind the changes, Ducey said, is that the state has increased the number of tests being performed to check for COVID-19. And he acknowledged that more tests will equal more findings that people are in fact ill.
But Ducey said the key for him is that the percentage of the tests that come back positive.
“And that is what’s on the downward trajectory,” he said.
“It’s a good trend,” the governor continued. “And it gives us the confidence to make some economic decisions safely.”
Ducey’s announcement comes as another 43,087 Arizonans applied this past week for unemployment benefits. That brings the total number of people who have lost their jobs in the wake of the pandemic and the executive orders shutting down parts of the economy to more than 513,000.
The trends the governor is using to explain his latest actions may be a bit misleading.
Until recently, the only people who could get tested are those who showed actual symptoms of the coronavirus. It has only been in the past week that state Health Director Cara Christ expanded eligibility to anyone who believes they may have been exposed.
More tests like that, by definition, leads to a lower rate of positives.
Ducey denied that his decision had anything to do with the increasing pressure he is facing, including from many in his own Republican Party. That ranges from weekly protests at the Capitol to several sheriffs saying they do not intend to cite businesses who open and serve customers in violation of his orders.
“There are always going to be outliers in any situation” Ducey said.
“I would say, by in large, the people of Arizona have been fantastic,” he continued. “They have been responsible.”
But the pressure on Ducey to allow the economy to reopen comes from not just the more libertarian elements of his own Republican Party.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, told Capitol Media Services the pure numbers show that the harm to the economy is far outstripping the actual physical danger.
Bowers said he has done some analysis of the 362 deaths in Arizona so far. The vast majority — more than three-quarters — are among those 65 and older who may have had other health conditions.
What that leaves, he said, are the 82 for those age 20 through 64.
“Thirteen one hundred thousands of a percent that have perished, and we say we can’t trust the rest of enterprise to open up and use wise business practices,” Bowers said. “I’m just hoping that he will recognize that he can trust the rest of the working population to try to exercise themselves smartly in order to help us all put this behind us.”
Anyway, Bowers pointed out that the “essential” businesses the governor has allowed to remain open probably make up the vast majority of all of the firms in the state. Yet even with that, he said, the number of cases of the virus has remained small.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, did not get into the numbers. But she told Capitol Media Services that Bowers is correct in his conclusions that businesses have figured out how to keep employees and customers safe.
“I’m hoping the governor sees it that way, too,” Fann said.
Ducey defended the speed of his changes.
“This is a step forward,” he said. “If you want to say I’ve been too cautious, I accept that.”
The governor said that pace is appropriate when talking about this kind of rapidly spreading virus.
“We understand much more today than we did six weeks ago,” Ducey said. “And I’m hopeful and optimistic as to what can happen over the next several weeks.”
In the meantime, the governor said his stay-at-home order issued more than a month ago is remaining in place, at least until May 15. But he said it’s never been a lock down of all activity.
“So if you wanted to go for a run or a walk or go to the grocery store for supplies, you’ve been doing that,” Ducey said.
“Now if you want to take a loved one out to dinner on the 11th or the 12th, or go get a haircut, you can do that, too,” he said. “Then you can head home.”
In each of these cases, Ducey said, there will be restrictions.
For example, restaurants will not be able to seat parties of more than 10. And there must be at least six feet between tables.
That, however, still leaves the question of why other kinds of establishments, like bars, can’t open if they exercise similar controls.
“We’re going to work with the industry so there’s flexibility so that those places can reopen,” Ducey said.
And he said that theater owners appear not to be in a terrible rush to reopen as has been done in Texas and other places with seating restrictions.
“What they said to us is ‘Hollywood’s not going to provide us any additional product or any new product until July 15,’ “ the governor said. “That’s the date that they’ve requested.”
Ducey did reverse himself Monday on one key point.
As recently as last week he said that there was no right of anyone seeking to place a relative in a nursing home or other long-term care facility to know if there were residents with COVID-19. Now, he said, anyone seeking to move a relative is legally entitled to that information, as is anyone who has a relative in an existing facility about any outbreaks there.
The move comes as state officials have acknowledged that these facilities have become relative hotbeds of viral outbreaks, complicated by both the closed nature of the campuses and the age and medical condition of residents.
Christ said it is now her goal to test every staffer and resident at every one of these facilities. But she acknowledged that will take time — she had no idea how long — to do that.
There also are plans to test both staff and inmates in the state prison system.