In shuttering restaurant dining rooms and bars overnight, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego invoked an emergency power that does not appear to have been used in recent history, and which could represent an unprecedented step in Phoenix city government.
Mayor Gallego invoked a "great emergency" declaration, which gives her the power to "impose all necessary regulations to preserve the peace and order" of Phoenix, such as imposing curfews or closing businesses.
That's opposed to a "local emergency," which gives the City Council the power to take "emergency measures" outside the city code. While local emergencies have been called in recent years for floods and other disasters, city attorneys have not yet identified an example of a "great emergency."
"City attorneys are currently looking back in municipal history to determine whether a great emergency has been declared before in the history of Phoenix,” according to spokesperson Annie DeGraw.
So far, the only major effects of Gallego's declaration has been forcing restaurants to close their dining rooms and shift to drive-thru, takeout, or delivery models, and forcing bars that don't serve food to close indefinitely.
Per city code, the declaration is still subject to a City Council ratification vote after an executive session that will take place sometime after 4 p.m. today. If the council does not vote to ratify the declaration, that would likely walk back Gallego's ability to enforce the restaurant closures.
If the council approves Gallego's "great emergency" declaration, members could take her powers away with a majority vote anytime beginning 24 hours after the declaration.
"We are doing this in response to the need to have small groups and to promote social distancing," Gallego said in a video announcing the declaration, adding that she made the decision in consultation with health officials. "Right now they are preparing to treat people in tents because they don’t have enough beds, that we expect doctors to have to make heartbreaking decisions about who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. They’ve said that by declaring an emergency, we at the city of Phoenix can help them save lives."
Though Gallego's declaration follows similar decisions by mayors and governors across the country, some council members have publicly and privately expressed concerns over the scope of her powers under the declaration, as well as the lack of any immediate assistance for business that will be affected.
Council members Betty Guardado, Laura Pastor, Michael Nowakowski, and Carlos Garcia called for a special session (closed to the public) at 4 p.m. directly following the regular council meeting. Multiple sources say the four Council members plan to discuss the impact of the emergency declaration on small businesses and their workers, and propose some form of municipal relief. Ideas on the table include a waiver on business licensing fees and a temporary moratorium on sales taxes, sources said.
Any potential city-level relief would supplement efforts by Governor Doug Ducey's administration to procure disaster loans from the Small Business Administration for businesses affected by COVID-19.
Council members are also expected to discuss fines and other penalties for businesses that do not comply with the emergency orders, as well as a grace period during which police will solely issue warnings to noncompliant restaurants and bars.
The Greater Phoenix Economic Council, which supports economic development in the city, publicly backed Gallego's declaration on Wednesday.
On the other side of the political spectrum, City Council member Sal DiCiccio, who represents District 6, publicly criticized Gallego's declaration as an overreach of power.
"This is nothing short of martial law, and there is absolutely no way I can or ever will support such a measure," DiCiccio said in a tweet. DiCiccio specifically criticized Gallego's invocation of a "great emergency," as opposed to a "local emergency."
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DiCiccio is not the only prominent Arizona conservative to criticize Gallego for her declaration. On Tuesday evening, four Republican lawmakers posed in front of a clock in a restaurant at 8:15 p.m. in a show of open defiance of Gallego's order. Those lawmakers included State Representative Anthony Kern, State Representative Mark Finchem, and state Senators David Gowan and Sonny Borrelli.
The photo was tweeted by Kern with the caption: "It's 8:15 p.m.......do you know where Phoenix Mayor @KateWGallego is? #resist #freedomofassembly."
Kern deleted the Tweet shortly after.