COVID-19 numbers will need to continue to drop before Maricopa County gyms can open back up, and they'll have to drop dramatically before bars can resume even partial operation, under guidelines released by the Arizona Department of Health Services today.
The guidelines establish two thresholds: "moderate" community spread of the virus and "minimal" community spread of the virus. Counties must reach moderate spread before gyms, water parks, indoor theaters and other crowd-drawing establishments ordered closed by Governor Doug Ducey can begin resuming business.
Before they can reopen, businesses must submit a legally binding document to the state that testifies they are following state health guidelines such as screening employees, requiring masks, and ensuring social distancing of customers.
They must also operate at a greatly reduced capacity. While there is moderate community spread, gyms can only operate at 25 percent capacity, and will only be able to reach 50 percent capacity once community spread reaches the "minimal" threshold.
Even once spread is minimal, bars will not be allowed to reopen until only 3 percent of COVID-19 tests in the county are positive, and even then, can only do so at 50 percent capacity. Arizona DHS head Dr. Cara Christ said this will likely remain the case until a vaccine or other measure changes the situation, calling them a high risk for transmission.
An exception exists for bars and nightclubs that have converted into dine-in restaurants. They will be able to open in the moderate transmission phase, following the same guidelines as regular restaurants.
As with schools, the DHS is offering a dashboard on its website that will provide information on the status of each county. Maricopa County is still in the "substantial" phase for all three metrics, but is trending downward. Christ said she expects the county to reach the "moderate" phase within the next few weeks "if the trends continue the way they are."
To move to a new phase, counties must have met all the metrics for two weeks, with the state using data on a 12-day lag due to the time it takes for all tests to be reported.
Christ said that 10 percent positivity is the benchmark because cases climb exponentially after that point.
"We want to make sure we are stably in that moderate zone [before opening]," she told reporters on a call unveiling the guidelines.
The department's website will also allow a business to submit a declaration that it's following protocols after the county reaches the right benchmarks. Once that's done, the business can begin reopening. "It's an automatic approval," Christ said.
The notice also means that if establishments violate the guidelines, say by not requiring social distancing, law enforcement or local health departments can take action without needing to give prior warning. While they will attempt to address issues with business owners, Christ said establishments that are threatening public health can be shut down immediately if necessary.
Establishments in areas that don't meet the requirements to reopen can still request an exemption from the state if they show they have plans in place to take extra steps to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Christ gave the example of businesses offering to operate at further-reduced capacity or test employees weekly. If the state denies the request, business owners can appeal to the courts.
The guidelines come after a judge ruled last week that the state had to offer gyms closed by the governor's order a chance to reopen. While Ducey's initial executive order had said fitness centers could reopen if they submitted a form showing they were complying with state health guidelines, no such form was provided until after Ducey signed an order renewing the shutdown that didn't mention such a process.
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"While the Form and the requirements have been made available, they provide no process until the mandatory shut down order is lifted," the judge wrote. "As such, any due process is illusory."
Mountainside Fitness owner and plaintiff Tom Hatten had previously said the business would reopen on August 11 in light of the ruling. Today, he said he would await the state's guidelines. Under the guidelines, it appears he will continue waiting to reopen for at least a few more weeks.
Read the AZDHS presentation here: