Citing 10 consecutive weeks of declining cases and rising vaccinations, Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday lifted COVID-19 restrictions on Arizona businesses and events through an executive order.
The new order also prohibits the enforcement of county and city mask mandates on private entities but says “mask usage is still encouraged, especially in groups that are not vaccinated,” according to a statement from the Governor’s Office. Ducey never issued a mask mandate, despite the demands of mayors of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and other big cities across Arizona.
“In Arizona, we never did a shutdown, so it’s impossible to have a grand reopening,” Ducey said in the release. “Instead, we are continuing to take reasonable, safe and sensible steps.”
Social events of more than 50 people, such as graduation ceremonies and concerts, now no longer will need preapproval from local governments. Bars also have been given the green light to return to pre-pandemic operations and no longer are required to serve food or operate as “dine-ins.”
Thursday’s order will allow for the return of full-capacity sports tournaments and games in Arizona. For some, this may mean the start of a highly-anticipated youth baseball season, but for others, this may lead to a higher chance at contracting the COVID-19 virus.
Ducey’s latest order was applauded by some and condemned by others, including the mayors of Phoenix and Tucson.
As we’ve said all along, distribution of the vaccine is our best path to getting back to normal, and I want to thank the millions of Arizonans who have rolled up their sleeves to make the distribution and uptake so successful. 4/
— Doug Ducey (@dougducey) March 25, 2021
Last month, the chief clinical officer at Banner Health, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, told HBO’s Real Sports that a return to youth sports in Arizona is a poor decision because “when you’re living in a pandemic, everybody’s actions can impact somebody else,” and “we are not able to live in a vacuum when it relates to the spread of this highly-contagious virus.”
For Joe Paddock, the assistant executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the order is “great news” and an “indicator that we’re moving in the right direction.”
The AIA works with public and private high schools in Arizona to facilitate volunteer-oriented interscholastic sport competitions.
“Some of our schools, quite honestly, are still in a position where they may completely restrict spectators and not allow anybody to be there,” Paddock said. “Others have opened up and they’re pretty much allowing whoever wants to attend to attend.”
Ducey is relaxing those restrictions in hopes of boosting the Arizona economy.
In April 2020, Arizona unemployment rates reached a “historic high of 13.4%,” Cronkite News reported. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that this rate dropped 4.5% from April to May 2020. This huge drop was “because of usual suspects reopening, which include bars, restaurants, retail and more,” economist Elliot D. Pollack told Cronkite News in June.
Ducey has said he hopes unemployment rates drop even more as vaccination rates increase and businesses are given the go to reopen at full capacity. The state says about 25% of Arizonans have received at least one dose of vaccines.
Ducey turned to Twitter earlier Thursday to thank the “millions of Arizonans who have rolled up their sleeves to make the distribution and uptake (of the COVID-19 vaccine) so successful.”
According to Maricopa County resident vaccine data, 1,679,358 residents have begun or completed their vaccination process. That’s 25% of all county residents, but 70% to 85% of Arizonans would need to be fully vaccinated to reach herd immunity – when the virus that causes COVID-19 lacks enough human hosts to continue spreading and mutating.
Because of this, some Arizonan officials believe Thursday’s order came too soon.
On Twitter Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said Ducey’s “decision directly contradicts the best scientists in the field.”
“The horrible surge last June was only curbed by masking – when the Governor finally allowed cities to do it. To abandon precautions now is like spiking the ball on the 5-yard line,” Gallego wrote.
On Wednesday, when COVID-19 vaccine eligibility in Arizona opened to age 16 or older, the state’s systems were overloaded by requests and all appointments were booked in 20 minutes. Eighty thousand more appointments will be available through the state at 11 a.m. Friday. So far, 653,810 Maricopa County residents have been fully vaccinated, out of nearly 4.5 million residents, per the Census Bureau.
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero called Ducey’s actions premature and said the new order will “jeopardize Arizona lives unnecessarily.”
“Removing local mask requirements is not linked to spurring our economy, as the governor suggests,” she said in a statement Thursday. “On the contrary, his actions could exacerbate community transmission, prolonging the pandemic and delaying a full and permanent re-opening of our economy.”
Romero said that she has been advised by the city attorney that she still has local authority to continue the mask mandate in Tucson and she has “no intention of removing” the requirement.
To learn more about vaccine eligibility in Arizona and registration information visit the Maricopa County website.
Cronkite News reporter Jacob Rudner contributed to this article.