Gov. Doug Ducey expects that Arizonans will need to continue to wear masks through at least the end of the year.
And forget about going to a bar, at least for the foreseeable future.
“We do know that those are places to congregate,” said Daniel Scarpinato, the governor’s chief of staff told Capitol Media Services on July 15. “And the last thing that will open in this atmosphere will be areas that result in congregation.”
Those assessments come as there are the first inklings that Arizona may finally be on the right track in trying to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Researchers say what’s called the state’s R-naught number is once again below 1.0.
That value, calculated by Rt.live, is the average number of people who become infected by an infectious person. If that number is above 1.0, the virus will spread; values below that indicate it will stop spreading.
On July 15, the figure was 0.97.
Arizona actually got its infection rate below even that figure during the governor’s stay-at-home order and his restrictions on business. But after those were lifted, it rose to 1.25.
This isn’t the only positive sign.
New figures from the Department of Health Services show the number of patients in hospitals with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 appears to be leveling off. And there was the largest one-day drop in the number of patients in intensive-care units.
All that occurred after Ducey gave local governments permission to impose mask requirements and after he reversed course and once again closed bars, movie theaters, gyms and fitness centers, imposed stricter limits on in-house dining at restaurants, and limited crowds to no more than 50, effectively precluding spectators at sporting events.
But Scarpinato said Arizonans should not see the latest bit of good news as an indication that these restrictions will disappear anytime soon.
“The virus continues to be widespread,” he said.
“What we don’t want is for anyone to think that because there might be some leveling off or because that R-naught number has dropped, that that means that we can let up or that means you don’t have to wear a mask anymore.” Scarpinato said. “It means that those policies are working and we’re going to have to continue doing it for the foreseeable future at least through the end of the year and probably beyond.”
That starts with masks. Put simply, he said, wearing a mask is “part of the new normal in Arizona.”
It’s not just about COVID-19.
Scarpinato pointed out that Arizona is headed into flu season.
What that means is trying to ensure that the state has sufficient doses of this year’s version of the vaccine. It also means trying to convince more Arizonans than the 30% to 40% who get the annual inoculation that they should participate.
All that, Scarpinato said, is related back to COVID-19.
“The flu season stresses our hospitals to begin with,” he said. “So to have that happening at the same time as the coronavirus could create stress.”
And there’s something else.
“Guess what? All the mitigation strategies that are in place for the coronavirus also happen to help prevent the spread of the flu – which also does take lives,” Scarpinato said. “So wearing masks, socially distancing, staying home, not having opportunities for people to congregate like in a bar or at major events or large events, all of those things will help on both fronts.”
That, for the time being, means that bars are going to stay closed.
“What we’re trying to do is create as much sustainable kind of steady policies for the business community as possible so they’ve got some predictability and we’re not having to change the rules on them every week or every two weeks or every month,” Scarpinato said. “Right now, given our cases and given the advice of public health we know there are a few things that just can’t be opened right now, bars being one of them.”
Does the governor believe there is a safe way of reopening bars?
“Not at this time,” Scarpinato said.
Restaurants and the occupancy limits on them pose a different issue.
Scarpinato said Ducey is aware of how some of this is being handled elsewhere in the country, with regulations crafted to essentially allow restaurants to spill out into the open air. While that may not work now in much of Arizona – that triple-digit heat coupled with humidity is not conducive to al fresco dining – he said that may work here, with capacity limits, as the weather moderates after the summer.
In the meantime, Scarpinato said the Governor’s Office is having discussions with business owners, asking them what measures they can put in place to create a safe environment. Those talks, he said, include public health officials who can say which of these suggestions work and which do not.
That also includes gyms and fitness centers which are supposed to remain closed, at least through July 27.
“We want to see what their vision of opening would look like,” Scarpinato said.