PHOENIX — The fight over whether Phoenix-area gyms, bars, movie theatres and water parks can reopen could be a moot point by Thursday if Maricopa County’s downward trend in coronavirus cases holds, the state’s top health officer said.
Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Department of Health Services, said she expects the county will hit levels for “moderate” spread of the virus on that day.
That means gyms that have been seeking waivers from the department can reopen even without one at reduced capacity. Five smaller counties - Cochise, Coconino, Greenlee, LaPaz and Yavapai - already are rated at “moderate” and other counties besides Maricopa could reach that mark this week. Also headed in that direction are Pinal and Pima counties.
State guidelines drafted by Christ’s department say gyms can reopen at 25% capacity once a county hits moderate transmission rates but must commit to implementing strategies to prevent the spread of the virus. Gyms are also urged to use a reservation system. Bars and nightclubs also can open at 50% occupancy levels, but only if they convert to restaurant service and implement stringent health department guidelines. Bars with no food service must remain closed.
Water parks and movie theatres also are allowed to reopen at 50% capacity once their county hits the moderate spread measurement.
Mountainside Fitness, a Phoenix-area chain of gyms, has been sparring with Gov. Doug Ducey in court over his closure orders. The company announced last Friday that it would reopen its metro locations even though its waiver application with the Department of Health Services has not been approved.
Christ said Monday that Mountain owner Tom Hatten’s announcement wasn’t that far off — even though her department denied its waiver request Sunday. About 90 gyms and a handful of bars and theatres have won waivers.
“We believe Maricopa County is probably going to hit moderate on Thursday,” Christ said. “So they actually wouldn’t be out of line with saying they were planning on opening this week.”
The company issued a statement Tuesday saying it would reopen Thursday morning and called the department's review “subjective.”
Mountainside won a court order requiring the governor to provide a way for closed businesses to apply for reopening. The state unveiled a plan Aug. 10 allowing gyms to apply to reopen at a limited capacity and with health precautions once the spread of the virus within their county is downgraded to moderate or minimal.
Christ also said most of Arizona’s 15 counties appear on track to meet guidelines for partially reopening schools by Labor Day. Counties must meet three specific metrics, including a test positivity rate of 7% or lower, to reopen with hybrid instruction.
“I think there will be a couple of places like Yuma (County) that won’t reach that, but they can work with their local health departments,” Christ said. “I would imagine that Maricopa and Pinal and Pima in the next two to three weeks will be at the 7 or below the 7.”
Christ’s remarks came as Arizona nears 200,000 confirmed virus cases after state health officials reported an additional 859 new cases on Tuesday.
The new confirmed cases reported by the Department of Health Services bring total coronavirus cases in the state to 199,273. The department reported 21 new deaths, to a total of 4,792.
Arizona is continuing to see big decreases in hospitalizations, intensive care bed usage and people with severe cases of COVID-19 needing ventilators to breathe.
Records the state collects from hospitals show just 999 people were hospitalized on Monday, the lowest since May 31. The state saw a surge of cases in June and July, hitting a peak of 3,517 people hospitalized on July 13. The use of ICU beds has also dropped significantly, with 319 cases on Monday, down from a peak of 970 on July 12.
New case and death reports have dropped since mid-July.
Christ said she is slightly worried that reopening schools, gyms, bars and nightclubs may send a message that the battle over the virus is won and that people can ease up on safety measures. That is not the case.
“I think the one thing we need to remind people is it is not time to relax all of the great mitigation measures that we’ve been doing,” Christ said. “We still need masks, people still need to remain home when they’re sick, people still need to physically distance.
“And we’re going to be watching these as we now start to gradually open some of these businesses and things,” she said.
The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.
For most people, COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a few weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Bob Christie, The Associated Press