Pima and Coconino counties are again at substantial risk for the spread of COVID-19 according to standards set by the Department of Health Services.
But don’t look for new restrictions on businesses.
The agency reported Tuesday that more than 100 of every 100,000 residents of the two counties are testing positive for the virus. That is categorized as substantial.
Two other factors — the percent of tests coming back positive and the percent of hospital patients who show up with COVID-like illness — remain in the moderate range.
Under the rules adopted by the agency earlier this year, having even one of three factors in the substantial range for two weeks in a row — which is what the situation now is — precluded the opening of certain businesses in that county, including movie theaters and fitness centers. All three had to be at least in the moderate range for even limited operations of certain businesses.
But state health officials said Tuesday they will not apply the same rules about all three being moderate in this case. Nor will they order any businesses to be re-closed.
Instead, agency spokesman Steve Elliott said the decision was made that the only way a county will move “backward” to a point where it used to be — when certain business could not operate at all — is if all three of the benchmarks go back to the substantial range, which has not happened.
The reason for that decision, he said, is that the overall situation in Arizona is better than it was in June and July.
That’s when Gov. Doug Ducey initially removed many restrictions on business operations. The result was a sharp increase in infection rates, with new cases topping 5,400 a day statewide.
For the past month, the number of new cases has not topped more than 800 a day.
Gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said Tuesday the change in how the rules and the benchmarks are being interpreted is justified.
“We’re in a very different place,” he told Capitol Media Services. Ptak said there’s no reason to close businesses just because one indicator now shows the risk of substantial spread as long as the others remain in the moderate range.
And what if the number of people testing positive went up not just to 100 for every 100,000 residents — the trigger for substantial spread — but to 500?
“That’s a bogus hypothetical,” Ptak responded.
Part of what’s different, he said, is that the spike in infections appears to be localized.
“We know that the universities are driving this,” Ptak said.
“What the data is actually showing is we have a targeted reason for these increases,” he said. “We should have a targeted approach.”
And closing some businesses on a county-wide basis, Ptak said, does not fit that definition.
“Closing water parks because cases around universities is not the right approach,” he said.
The action comes as a 14-day voluntary shelter in place order at the University of Arizona ended Tuesday as school officials sought to drive down infection rates among faculty and staff.
Part of the problem, according to UA President Robert Robbins, is that the virus has been spread not in classrooms but at what he said were large, off-campus gatherings.
In deciding to leave business operations intact in the two counties despite the increase in infection rates, Elliott pointed to what he said are “strict mitigation strategies” designed to help prevent another spike like the one that occurred in June and July.
One of those strategies is that there is now a requirement that restaurant patrons must wear masks when they are not “actively eating or drinking.” But those mask requirements were a long time in coming.
For months Ducey refused to impose a statewide mask mandate. In fact, he even blocked city and county officials from enacting their own.
It was only in June, facing that rising tide of infections, that the governor relented — partly — allowing for local mask orders but still refusing any state restrictions.
Elliott said other things are different now, which is why the department does not believe there is a need to re-close businesses.
For example, gyms and fitness centers, which were allowed to open their doors, have to operate at just 25 percent capacity. There also are occupancy restrictions at other businesses.
And the state has established a “hotline” where people can report violations of the requirements.
Elliott also cited what he said is broad access to testing, with fast turnaround results, and enhanced contact tracing by the state and counties.