Test Run

Retail will begin to open next week. Then what?

Arizona retail shops can reopen this week along with barber shops and beauty parlors, while restaurants and coffee shops can begin serving customers next week under a new plan from Gov. Doug Ducey.

While Ducey has extended his stay-at-home through May 15, he says he wants businesses to gradually reopen as long as they follow social-distancing and other guidelines. Customers and employees in barber shops will have to wear masks, for example, while restaurants will require employees to wear masks while interacting with customers, use digital or disposable menus and wash surfaces more often, among other requirements. Restaurants are also encouraged to maintain at least six feet between dining parties, while other reopening businesses should ensure their customers should maintain social distance from each other.

"These habits we've acquired over the last 45 days will not be with us forever, but they will be with us for the time being," Ducey said at last week's press conference.

Ducey cautioned that people vulnerable to COVID-19—older Arizonans and people with underlying health conditions—should avoid unnecessary trips and continue to exercise caution if they go out. And as of press time, the governor was still holding off on giving a green light to other businesses where people mingle or are otherwise in close contact with one another, such as bars, movie theaters and gyms.

But he is gradually allowing commerce to recommence following a month in which his stay-at-home order temporarily shuttered many businesses and required others to significantly reduce their operations.

Ducey is under intense pressure to reopen the state. Republican lawmakers were extremely critical of his decision to extend the stay-at-home order last week, with state Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley) calling it "wholly inappropriate" and Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) trying to rally lawmakers to vote to end Ducey's emergency declaration. (There's little lawmakers can do, as they themselves left the Capitol halfway through the session in mid-March over fears of contracting COVID-19 and they have not returned to restart work.)

Beyond the political pressure is the economic cost to people as well as the state. More than 400,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits and the job losses likely exceed that, as some workers who lost jobs were ineligible for the benefits or got fed up trying to complete their application.

Businesses across the spectrum are struggling to stay alive. While some aid was available through the federal programs that offered low-interest and forgivable loans, many small business owners—especially mom-and-pop operators—are worried they won't survive much longer if they can't reopen.

As a result of lost sales and income taxes, the state could be looking at a billion-dollar deficit next year, although state budget forecasters have said they have so little data yet that they could be off by $500 million in either direction.

Despite all that, a late April poll by Public Opinion Strategies showed that most Arizonans approved of Ducey's effort to slow the outbreak. Roughly six in 10 voters thought his approach had been "just about right," while 29 percent said he had "not gone far enough" and just 8 percent said he had "gone too far," according to the poll of 600 registered voters.

Even with the stay-at-home order, the infection has continued to spread across Arizona. In the week between Monday, April 27 and Monday, May 4, the number of confirmed cases in the state jumped from 6,717 to 8,919, while the death toll climbed from 275 to 362. (In Pima County, the number of confirmed cases between the same dates went from 1,164 to 1,346; deaths climbed from 76 to 89.)

Ducey says he's being guided by science and data, but he himself said at last week's press conference that the data gathered during the month that the state has been shut down doesn't show a trend. The number of new confirmed cases jumps up and down by the day, so it's hard to see what's an outlier and what's a sign that things are getting better or worse. More than anything, it appears that with the stay-at-home order and social distancing, the state has more or less hit a plateau rather than a peak.

Members of the medical community are wary of relaxing restrictions at this point. Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor in the UA's Zuckerman College of Public Health who has been modeling COVID-19's spread in community, warned in a report last week that "maintaining or increasing social distancing should remain our highest priority or we risk a resurgence fueled by these active cases."

But one of the most challenging things for anyone making decisions is the lack of data. Arizona is last in the country when it comes to testing, according to nationwide tracking by Johns Hopkins University, which notes that the state had only tested 11.1 people for every 100,000 residents as of May 4. Ducey last week announced a testing blitz over the next several weekends; the first day was Saturday, May 2.

As Ducey takes the first steps toward reigniting Arizona's economy, the state does not appear to be hitting some of the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before states should proceed with a phased return to business. The CDC guidelines call for a downward trajectory of influenza-related illnesses reported within a 14-day period and a downward trajectory of COVID-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period; a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period; and evidence that hospitals can treat all patients without crisis care and a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing.

Arizona has fortunately not hit any kind of crisis with the healthcare system and it's now better prepared to handle a surge of cases, although there's a constant call for more personal protective equipment. That means hospitals can treat COVID-19 patients without crisis care. But the number of newly infected patients has not fallen for two weeks. And, as mentioned above, the state trails the nation in testing. The upcoming testing blitz—aimed at testing 10,000 to 20,000 people each weekend—is designed to rapidly improve Arizona's testing record and could lead to the downward trajectory in positive tests as a percentage of total tests that is called for in the CDC guidelines.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, who closed bars and limited restaurant service in mid-March, well ahead of Ducey's declaration of a state of emergency at the end of the month, offered cautious support for the governor's action last week, praising him for extending his stay-at-home order but expressing concern about allowing sit-down service in restaurants.

"What I'm concerned about is how we're going to physically distance and how we're going to deal with touchpoints that happen at restaurants," Romero said. "But I'm willing to move in that direction for the benefit of small business owners in the city of Tucson."

Romero, along with Pima County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ramón Valadez, called on Ducey to restore the power of local communities to develop their own criteria on allowing businesses to reopen. When he issued his executive order establishing a stay-at-home order, Ducey said local communities could go no further than the state in establishing regulations.

Pima County has developed its own metrics based on the CDC guidelines: Decreasing positive cases over 14 days; decreasing COVID-19 related-deaths over 14 days; decreasing symptomatic cases over 14 days; testing for all symptomatic patients; staffing and beds sufficient for twice the number of current COVID-19 cases; sufficient personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and emergency responders; timely contact tracing; testing of symptomatic contacts; and facilities/support for patients who can't be discharged home. Of those nine criteria, Pima County had only hit one of them as of Monday, May 4: There are enough staff and beds for twice the number of current cases. Otherwise, they are making progress in some areas.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has launched a Back to Business Task Force with representatives from county's Small Business Commission as well as from restaurants, hotels and resorts, chambers of commerce, gyms, daycares, area attractions, film and live performance theaters and event centers, with the idea of developing best practices for keeping employees and customer safe when businesses reopen. But as long as Ducey is preventing local jurisdictions from enforcing any measures more stringent than the state's regulations, any strategies the county develops will just be guidelines.

But there's still the question of whether people will believe it's safe to venture into shops and restaurants.

"Government can give a green light, but if the public doesn't believe it's safe, they won't be there," Huckelberry said.

Business owners themselves are now deciding whether it's safe to reopen their shops. Fourth Avenue Merchants Association executive director Fred Ronstadt said he was "cautiously optimistic" that businesses in the shopping district could reopen without a new spike in cases.

"We don't want to be in a situation where the ruling authority, whether it be the state or the city, takes an action that would necessitate us to go back to where we are today," Ronstadt said. "The cost of opening prematurely, closing, and then maybe opening again down the line is higher than waiting a little longer."

DeeDee Konen, co-owner of artistic doodad shop Pop Cycle on Fourth Avenue, said she planned to continue with online sales and curbside pickup at least through May 15.

"We still think it's a little premature to be opening as the numbers are still high," Konen said. "It doesn't feel like it's a good time to reopen the shop, so on May 15, we're going to reevaluate and see how people are feeling, and may or may not implement by-appointment-only."

Lizzie Mead, owner of Fourth Avenue's Silver Sea Jewelry, doesn't plan to reopen until June because she had to move the majority of her merchandise after a person was caught on a security camera appearing to case her shop for a potential robbery.

"I can't move back in and move out again," Mead said. "That's what makes it super weird for me."

Restaurateurs are also having mixed emotions about reopening after Ducey announced restaurants could return to dine-in service on Monday, May 11, under new guidelines during Monday's press conference.

"The owner in me...the responsible owner that has to pay bills is like, 'The faster, the better,'" said Chef Maria Mazon, owner of Boca Tacos y Tequila. "But the concerned citizen in me doesn't want to risk my team, my customers or myself."

Ray Flores, owner of all things El Charro, said he was caught off-guard by the governor's announcement. However the Flores family has been working on a 100-point plan for the past few weeks to address new protocols and best sanitation practices for the day they could return to service, Flores said.

"Our group is going to walk before we can run," Flores said. "We want to make sure that our restaurants are ready for our guests and that our crew members are safe."

Arizona Pizza Company and Upper Crust Pizza owner Nick Heddings said he's concerned about having to hire a dedicated employee whose sole purpose is to sanitize the seating area after each customer dines. While the practice may be standard at more formal restaurants, Heddings foresees issues in a fast casual restaurant environment.

"It doesn't take long to figure out all that (cost) comes straight out of my pocket and eventually the customer's pocket," Heddings said.

With less than two months of data about the spread of the virus and how it infects people, there's still much to learn about COVID-19. How widespread is it in our community? Does the summer heat keep it at bay? And does reopening the economy cause a new spike in cases?

We're about to find out.

Austin Counts contributed to this report.

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