As the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. skyrockets and one-fifth of Americans have now been ordered to stay home, Governor Doug Ducey suggested Monday afternoon that Arizona is somehow different — that the state, where cases have soared in recent days and testing is scarce, doesn't need more aggressive measures to contain the spread of the deadly virus.
“Many of you have asked if or when the state will move towards a stay-at-home policy. The answer is, not at this time," he said during a press conference, sounding increasingly agitated as reporters pushed back about his decision not to impose more stringent measures.
"Arizona is not there yet. We’re not at the same stage as other states,” he said, despite the fact that limited testing and data are still stopping officials from being able to gauge the full scope of the crisis.
Asked during the press conference how he could claim Arizona was trying to "stop the spread" of the virus, Ducey bristled.
"I’m working with guidance from CDC and the Department of Health Services," he said. "I am listening to the subject matter experts, the public health officials."
During the press conference, Ducey announced two executive orders.
One was a "proactive" move, he said. It defines essential services in Arizona that would stay open should the state decide to further limit which businesses can stay open (movie theaters, bars, gyms, and restaurants have already been closed or restricted), and it says that cities and towns can't impose restrictions that would narrow the list, which is four pages long.
The other would require commercial labs to disclose more data about testing.
As of Monday, Arizona has 234 cases, up 55 percent from the day before. Two Arizonans have died from the virus. Those numbers have risen significantly in just the last week, as testing slowly becomes more available. Still, without widespread testing, it's impossible to measure the true number of COVID-19 cases in the state.
Arizona, home to 7.3 million people and to the country's fifth-largest city (Phoenix) has tested just 352 people to date in its public health laboratory. Commercial labs have not said how many people they've tested, although one of the executive orders issued Monday now requires them to share that so-called denominator data.
Ducey labeled the executive order to define essential services a "proactive and administrative measure that ensures that the state has one consistent overarching policy.”
During the press conference, he provided scarce details about the definition of essential services, but the full list, published online, is expansive. Those services, according to the executive order, are those that "[promote] the public health, safety, and welfare of the state or assists others in fulfilling such functions."
Pharmacies, grocery stores, restaurants offering takeout or delivery, farms, gas stations, food banks, banks, and other critical services are, predictably, included. But so are golf courses and "personal hygiene services with additional sanitization precautions."
It specifically states that different categories of businesses, like Human Services Operations or Essential Infrastructure Operations, will be "construed broadly to avoid any impacts." Essential Infrastructure Operations include "landscape management," and "financial institutions" includes pawn shops. "Critical trades" include painting services.
Critically, that executive order could curtail local jurisdictions' efforts to impose tighter restrictions or shelter-in-place policies of their own, and several Arizona cities are still working to figure out what this latest executive order means for local efforts to keep people home in order to curb the virus's spread.
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Cities and towns cannot issue any orders that would restrict the essential services defined in Ducey's order, it says, and "any order restricting persons from leaving their home due to the COVID-19 public health emergency issued" has to be coordinated with the state first, it says.
In addressing the pandemic in Arizona, Ducey has been behind leaders of other states, and moved slowly to impose policies that restrict businesses from operating and people from going about their daily lives.
On March 11, he declared a public health emergency over the pandemic when Arizona had nine cases of the new coronavirus, days after other governors had declared emergencies, in some cases even before they had positive cases.
On March 12, he and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said schools would not be closing due to the pandemic. But in the following days, more and more schools and districts voluntarily decided to cancel class, and Ducey opted on March 15 to announce a statewide closure until March 27, later extended until April 10.