The state’s top health official admitted Friday she has altered the standards governing business operations during the COVID-19 outbreak to the point that none will ever have to close, no matter how serious the infection rate gets.
The reason, said Cara Christ, is that she does not believe businesses are a major source of the coronavirus infections that currently have nearly 4,000 people in Arizona hospitals and the number of intensive care beds available in the entire state down to 128, just 7% of capacity. She also said the implications of shutting down a business are greater than leaving them open.
And Christ does not foresee a situation where the spread of infection from business will get to a point where she would change her mind.
Christ acknowledged that she effectively has scrapped the “substantial risk of spread” category from the benchmarks she adopted earlier this year. Now, no county can be classified as having more than a “moderate” risk.
What makes that significant is that, using Christ’s own standards, certain businesses, including bars, movie theaters and gyms are not allowed to operate when a county is placed in the substantial category. That is based on more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents, more than 10% of people testing coming back positive, and more than 10% of people showing up at hospitals having COVID-like illness.
All but Greenlee County have all three indicators above that level according to the agency’s own data, some by quite substantial margins.
In Pima County, for example, the infection rate is 607 per 100,000 residents and 17.9% of tests for the virus are positive. Pinal and Cochise Counties has a comparable positivity rate but with 548 cases per 100,000 in Pinal and 727 in Cochise 100,000.
And Yavapai County has a positivity rate of 566 per 100,000 with 21% of tests showing infection.
But with the change in definition, Christ conceded, there is no longer any risk of any business in any county getting shuttered.
Christ justified her decision, saying those benchmarks were designed to show when businesses that had been closed early in the pandemic because they were in areas of substantial risk of spread could reopen, specifically, when the levels of infection reached moderate levels. She said it doesn’t work the same in reverse.
she said there are now “mitigation strategies” in place to reduce the risk, such as requirements for restaurants and bars that operate like restaurants — no dancing, staying at the table — to be limited to 50% occupancy.
Anyway, Christ said it’s not like these businesses are a major source of infections. Her department says information from “contact tracing” of people who have come down with the disease found that just 14% said they might have gotten it by attending large group settings outside their homes.
That, the agency said points “to spread occurring in households and small gatherings.”
But the numbers may be higher than that.
The most recent contact tracing data from Pima County, for example, finds that 26% of those questioned say they had recently been to a bar or restaurant. Christ was not impressed.
“So that would mean than 74% of those individuals that they interviewed did not they were at a restaurant or bar,” she said. And Christ said those businesses are supposed to be operating under mitigation strategies enacted this past summer, like masks when not eating and drinking and limited indoor seating.
And there’s something else.
“We also have to take a look at the whole health of the community,” she said. “Housing and food access and health insurance and access to a job all play a role in the overall health and long-term outcome of our community.”
Christ said there are ripple effects.
“If I close down a restaurant, these are individuals that are now going to find a job somewhere else because they have to work,” she said. And Christ said it’s potentially even more harmful.
“Losing a house or income has a significant impact on their overall health,” she said. “So we are taking all that into account.”
So with 26% of Pima County cases potentially traceable to bars and restaurants, is there any percentage or number of cases that would convince her to rethink the whole idea that she won’t close any business?
“I can’t say that there’s not a number,” Christ responded. “But there are other strategies that would come in before that, before we would recommend closing.”
That, she said, includes beefing up enforcement of existing rules for businesses and doing more to urge people to avoid large gatherings.