This Week in COVID: Cases Dropping, Places Reopening, and It's Way Too Soon to Celebrate

This Week in COVID: Cases Dropping, Places Reopening, and It's Way Too Soon to Celebrate

It's Tuesday, August 25. More than 198,000 Arizonans have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 4,700 have died from it. Here's the latest on how the virus is affecting the state:

The rate at which COVID-19 cases are spreading has continued to drop for the seventh straight week. "Our daily numbers of cases is close to what it was at the end of May," back when a surge of new cases began, says Joshua LaBaer, the executive director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, which tracks the spread of the virus in Arizona. For the second Monday in a row, the state added no new deaths to its total. While deaths and new cases aren't necessarily reported within a day of occurring, and the numbers reported tend to be lower on Mondays, ventilator usage hit its lowest point since early April, according to Phoenix ABC affiliate KNXV-TV (ABC15) data analyst Garrett Archer's running tally. Arizona's R-number, the average number of new people each COVID-positive person infects, remains the lowest in the nation at 0.76.
It's too soon to celebrate, though. In the last week, 3,494 cases and 242 new deaths were added to the state's totals. "We're still in a high rate. We're still at hundreds of new cases a day. And we don't want that. We want to get way below that," LaBaer told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday. If people stop taking precautions, "we'll pop right back up," he said.

Slowing the spread means that some counties may only be a week away from meeting state benchmarks for resuming in-person school instruction. Currently, only Yavapai County meets those non-binding benchmarks. In Maricopa County, the Mobile, Paloma and Sentinel elementary school districts currently meet county benchmarks to resume traditional instruction. The J.O. Combs school district, one of the few in the Valley planning to resume in-person classes, had to walk back its plans last week after too many teachers called in sick, forcing the cancellation of the first week of school.

More than half the counties in the state could begin the first stage of re-opening gyms and other congregate settings as early as Thursday when the state updates its metrics. The data is on a two-week lag to allow for all tests to be processed, so the markers used to measure how prevalent COVID-19 is in each county are likely to continue to drop. Three counties — Yavapai, Coconino and Greenlee — have already reached the first "moderate level" stage as of last Thursday. Under state rules, many congregate settings ordered closed by the governor can open at reduced capacity when those markers are met.

click to enlarge Even once counties reach "minimal" spread, bars will remain closed until test positivity drops below 3 percent. - AZDHS
Even once counties reach "minimal" spread, bars will remain closed until test positivity drops below 3 percent.
Around 300 bar owners, bar employees and supporters rallied at the Arizona State Capitol Thursday in opposition to the governor's restrictions. Protesters decried what they view as the arbitrary nature of the governor's order that shut down liquor licenses in stand-alone bars, but allowed bars within restaurants to continue as normal. The impact of COVID-19 restrictions has been tough on both owners and employees, having claiming Phoenix-favorite Sidebar and other establishments.

There are some signs of economic relief. The state is continuing to expand the number of bars and fitness centers allowed to open through special agreement with the Arizona Department of Health Services. One bar featured in a press release for the Capitol rally, Mooney's Irish Pub in Sedona, has since become one of the first bars to receive the all-clear. Re-opening requires the state to approve a plan from the business that goes beyond state guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In terms of other relief, as of last week there was $10 million in state grants and $38 million in local grants available for small business owners to apply for.

Citing DHS' special approval process, a Maricopa County judge declined an effort from gym chain Mountainside Fitness to hold Governor Doug Ducey in contempt of court. Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomason said the state had met his requirement to establish a process to be exempted from the order, but agreed the process currently lacks clarity. He said Mountainside needed to give the process a chance to work. The gym chain said in a Friday tweet that it had not heard back from DHS about its application to re-open, but plans to go ahead with opening this week anyways.
ASU resumed classes last week, and it's going about as well as one might expect. By the first day of school, video had been posted purporting to show students at a packed party and crowded into a dorm room playing beer pong. Additional video shared by a student over the weekend showed dozens lined up for an off-campus party. ASU administrators said they are looking into the videos and will contact any students identified as being involved.

Ducey once again opted to go with a half-hour press conference instead of the semi-weekly, in-depth briefings he has done in the past. The governor's office has said the change was due in part to feedback from reporters, but the only evidence produced to support that assertion was a mischaracterization, according to the reporter who tweeted it. At his last in-depth briefing, on July 30, a meme-inspiring ad of a parachuting hot dog was projected behind Ducey's head.

When will the head of the Arizona Department of Corrections head David Shinn will be available to take questions? The DOC director has been unresponsive to reporters' inquiries and absent from press conferences with the governor, even as the number of COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people has exploded. A man currently held in a Tucson unit where over half the residents have tested positive for COVID-19 told Phoenix New Times that agencies guards failed to take the outbreak seriously.

This is a weekly update. If you have tips for COVID-19-related stories or things that should be included, let me know at [email protected]
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter