Ducey endures year of slings, arrows for Covid handling

Dillon Rosenblatt//March 11, 2021

Ducey endures year of slings, arrows for Covid handling

Dillon Rosenblatt//March 11, 2021

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey arrives for a news conference to talk about the latest Arizona COVID-19 information Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey arrives for a news conference to talk about the latest Arizona COVID-19 information Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

On March 11, 2020, Gov. Doug Ducey placed Arizona under a state of emergency to combat the spread of Covid. The country declared Covid as a pandemic that same day.

To his harshest critics, Ducey’s efforts largely failed, and many directly blame him for the deaths of more than 16,000 Arizonans.

To his loyal supporters, he’s getting results. Arizona’s economy is one of the strongest in the nation and the vaccine rollout — despite several hiccups — has already inoculated at least 20% of the state’s population. 

Ducey resisted calls for “extreme” measures put forth by both sides of the ideological aisle. He refused to impose a statewide mask mandate, angering the liberal base. But he also restricted business activity, upsetting conservatives.  

And as Arizona’s cases skyrocketed in the summer and the fall, Ducey abandoned his early efforts at transparency. Specifically, the regularly weekly briefings went away, and he got testy with reporters in the sporadic ones he held. 

Ducey and his staff refused to comment for this story.  

Shut down, reopen, shut down again

A businessman by profession, Ducey acted cautiously, particularly when it came to calls to shutter business operations. 

Before anybody really knew how bad Covid would get, Ducey put Arizona in a quasi stay-at-home order for a month, shutting the doors of “non-essential” businesses. He extended the order two additional weeks, but began to walk it back in early May to align with one of many visits by President Trump. He shut down schools in a joint-announcement with Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman. 

Ducey allowed businesses to begin reopening, but his critics said he had no plan in place to help slow the spread, insisting his administration implemented neither a comprehensive contact tracing effort nor a mask mandate and that the state allowed certain businesses to exploit a loophole and continue operating. 

He refused to add any new mitigation measures as Arizona became a global hot spot around November through January. 

The elderly

Many leaders said they were left out of the administration’s decisions – and the complaint emanated not just from mayors and other political rivals.

Things turned for the worse around Memorial Day, when bars took advantage of a loophole in the governor’s executive order to remain open amid a sharp rise in cases and deaths that disproportionately wreaked havoc on Arizona’s elderly population. 

Some said his office only sought to mend relationships after mounting pressure and public shaming.

Dana Kennedy, the Arizona state director of the AARP, said her relationship with Ducey’s office became practically nonexistent after two meetings in early March 2020.  

Kennedy said she had not heard from Ducey or his staff again until around June or July, when Ducey’s chief of staff reached out. 

“My advocacy started working, and I got a call from Daniel Scarpinato where he said, ‘What do we need to do to repair this relationship?’ Kennedy said. 

That led to the state setting up a task force for long-term care facilities. 

And later, when vaccines became available, Ducey immediately prioritized vaccinating Arizona’s oldest residents, putting them in the same priority category as health workers, something Kennedy applauded. 

But Kennedy lamented that Ducey and Cara Christ, the state health director, still wouldn’t allow numbers from long-term care facilities to be released and fought to keep any information sealed in court. 

Kennedy said she felt hopeless at times. 

“They felt like I was the only person who could help them. And I couldn’t,” she said about the aging community. She added that there hasn’t been any transparency from Ducey or Christ when it comes to the assisted living facilities or other long-term care facilities.

“I still to this day disagree with not releasing the information regarding assisted living facilities,” Kennedy said. “And to this day I could not tell you how many people have died in long-term care facilities.” 

Arizona is among just a few states that hide that information from the public. What AARP Arizona knows is that least 2,500 residents of skilled nursing facilities have died. The true number, she speculated, is much higher than that.

“We know for a fact that there were a lot of deaths in our long-term care facilities, and they won’t release that information. They have it, but they won’t release it,” Kennedy said. 

Deaths and transparency

Ducey started holding press conferences again toward the end of November. 

More than half of all of Arizona’s Covid deaths would occur after his last public appearance on December 16. 

And the last time Ducey publicly expressed condolences regarding a Covid-related death happened nearly a year ago.

“Our heartfelt condolences go out at this tragic loss of life,” Ducey tweeted about the second death from the virus.

Some lament that it’s not enough. 

Among the 16,464 Arizonans who have died from the virus is Kristin Urquiza’s father, Mark. His death prompted Urquiza to launch Marked By Covid, which collects stories from people whose lives were upended by Covid.

Urquiza, who gained national attention, wrote a letter to Ducey inviting him to her father’s funeral, blaming him in part for her father’s death on June 30. She told the Arizona Capitol Times that her father believed the governor when he said Arizona was on the other side of the pandemic and decided to end the de-facto stay-at-home order in May. 

At the time, bars briefly reopened and Ducey refused to allow cities to issue their own mask mandates. Ducey later relented, allowing local governments to issue mask-up ordinances in June. 

“I haven’t received any condolence or outreach from the governor, Cara Christ or the Department of Health,” Urquiza said. “[They have all been] completely silent, and from everybody that I interact with who’s lost a loved one in Arizona, I don’t know a single person who has received a generic or a personal condolence from Doug Ducey.” 

Loyal opposition, loyal critics

One of Ducey and Christ’s harshest critics is Will Humble, the former state health director who accused the state leaders of only acting after mounting pressure from experts, the public and media.

“How this Governor’s Office operated is that if you could embarrass them publicly they might consider changing direction,” Humble said.

Humble, who briefly remained in his health director role early in Ducey’s tenure, said the governor’s lack of transparency trickled down to nearly all state agencies, speculating that’s also the reason why directors from the Department of Economic Security and Department of Corrections also don’t hold news briefings. 

Ducey’s supporters maintain that, despite the incessant criticism, Arizona sits with a robust economy despite early predictions to the contrary. They point to the governor’s innovative strategies to ramp up vaccination, notably by opening three statewide vaccination sites. 

They note that the administration has acknowledged problems in the vaccine rollout, but that it’s working on fixing them and they see a light at the end of the tunnel shining just a tad brighter. 

Meanwhile, it has been 85 days since Ducey’s last public appearance.