Gov. Doug Ducey has to decide this week whether his executive orders limiting activity due to COVID-19 are worth the continued harm to the Arizona economy.
The governor most immediately has to act on his month-old stay-at-home order telling people they cannot go out unless they are engaged in an essential activity. That edict self-destructs at midnight Thursday night unless renewed.
Given Ducey’s cautious approach to enacting the order in the first place — at least two dozen other governors had acted before Arizona’s March 31 implementation — it is unlikely he would allow it to simply expire. Instead the expectation is for a loosening, perhaps tied to some advisories about social distancing.
And it won’t matter much, at least to the Arizona economy, unless Ducey also alters his list of what are “essential” business and services — and the more important list of what are not and must remain shuttered. There is no deadline for Ducey to act as that order on essential businesses remains in effect until he alters or rescinds it.
The governor’s orders already permit people to go out to shop at essential businesses. So easing his order to let people go out won’t mean anything if there’s no new places for them to go, whether to shop, dine, drink or even have a picnic in the park.
But here, too, the governor was slow and deliberate about deciding what can remain open, even to the point of initially concluding that barber shops, hair salons, spas and tattoo parlors were essential until he finally acknowledged that there was no reasonable way to maintain social distance.
A similar loosening is likely to be in a stepped approach, providing additional opportunities for people to shop — with some controls.
That’s exactly the course being urged by Glenn Hamer, chief executive of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a close political ally.
“As we thaw out parts of the economy that have been frozen, we need to do that safely,” he said. That starts with opening up smaller retail operations with “appropriate social distancing” and other safety protocols.
But all that is too slow for some Arizonans who want Ducey to immediately scrap both his stay-at-home and essential services orders.
Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said he does not dispute that the orders — fewer infections and “flattening the curve” to preserve hospital beds — appear to have worked.
“The question is, to what extent?” he told Capitol Media Services after a rally last week.
“How long do we wait to get our economy back?” Farnsworth continued. “I think the majority of the people down here feel like the time has come, that the main point of danger has passed, that it’s time to reopen.”
All this occurs against the backdrop of additional hits to the Arizona economy, with even more people applying last week for first-time unemployment benefits. That puts the number of Arizonans who have lost their jobs since the outbreak — and his executive orders — in the half-million range.
But it also comes as questions remain about how extensive is the virus in Arizona and whether, without comprehensive data, it is premature to reopen segments of the state economy.
The health department reported Monday another 1,732 people had been tested. That brings the overall tally in the state to 66,543.
That is just 0.9 percent of the total population. Kaiser Family Foundation finds only Virginia with a per capita testing rate as low.
There have been some moves to improve that, including an order from state Health Director Cara Christ last week allowing those who believe they have been exposed to COVID-19 to get tested.
And on Monday, Ducey announced what he called the Arizona Testing Blitz, aiming to get anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people tested every Saturday for three consecutive weeks, beginning this weekend.
“The testing is important,” said gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak, saying that’s why Ducey announced the blitz, though it won’t start before his boss has to make a decision on the stay-at-home order.
But Ptak said Ducey’s decision will be based on more than just test results.
“Other data is also important, like whether our hospitals are prepared,” he said. And Arizona got some good news, with the health department saying Monday was the first day in more than a month that no COVID-19 deaths were reported.
The governor separately has been promoting antibody testing to determine who already has had the virus — and may now be immune. And Ducey has made it clear that, too, will figure in the decisions he has to make.
“Antibody testing can be a game-changer in our fight against COVID-19,” he said in a prepared statement last week when Sonora Quest Laboratories announced it will offer such blood tests in addition to diagnostic tests to determine active infection. “This is another welcome expansion that will help provide certainty as Arizona looks to economic recovery at the appropriate time.”
Ducey also is touting a new program at the University of Arizona which is providing $3.5 million to test 250,000 health care workers and first responders to determine who has been exposed to the virus and developed antibodies. But the first testing won’t begin until later this week, and initially only in Pima County.
Hamer said the bottom line — and the message he wants the governor to have — is that businesses want to reopen.
“Arizonans want to work,” he said.
“We want to see people go back to work,” Hamer continued. “And we want to see our economy fully restored.”
Still, he said, it has to be done in a prudent and safe fashion.
“And it’s going to be done in phases,” Hamer said.
He said there are models out that that work.
“Protocols are going to have to be in place that limit traffic,” Hamer said.
That’s already being done in many grocery, home improvement and department stores, with a new customer being let in when one leaves. And he said that’s even more important as the rules for who can open are broadened.
“We can’t have a gazillion people in a small store when you have a pandemic without effective therapeutics and good treatment,” Hamer said. And he said there are likely to be other mandates and suggestions, ranging from sheets of plastic separating customers from cashiers to tape lines on the floor marking social distance for those waiting in line.
All this presumes that even if Ducey loosens the restrictions that Arizonans will be willing to foray out.
“Consumer confidence is the $64,000 question,” Hamer conceded. “It’s very important for the governor’s actions to continue to be consistent with the comfort level of the citizens.”