Health researchers on Wednesday urged caution despite the state’s lifting of restrictions on businesses and government, echoing a federal warning of a possible fourth wave of COVID-19 if Arizonans become too complacent.
Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, ticked off positive developments, bookended by warnings.
Vaccinations are rising and cases of COVID-19 “at a minimum” slowed and stabilized in recent weeks, he said. But new variants, in Arizona and elsewhere across the globe, are emerging, with questions about whether they are of little concern or may interfere with the efficacy of current vaccines.
It’s still wise to wear masks and socially distance, LaBaer said. He pointed to Israel, which has encountered a spike in cases in the midst of vaccination efforts, and France, which has returned to lockdown status for a third time.
“No biomedical indicators would suggest that now is a good time to reduce mitigation efforts,” LaBaer said. “There is very good reason to not gather in large crowds, to not go without a mask in public, to follow all the efforts we know.”
Lead researchers advise a heightened focus on vaccinations and mitigation efforts as they anticipate the “very real possibility” of a fourth wave. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fear such an occurrence.
LaBaer reported the number of COVID-19 cases has stopped declining after weeks of downward trends. The daily number of positive cases now is slowly increasing, with a slight uptick in the trailing seven-day average. Researchers are watching closely for another possible spike in positive cases amid surges in other regions of the country.
Efrem Lim, an assistant professor and virologist at ASU, also reported the discovery of a new variant that reduces antibody response. Researchers hesitated to speculate on the impact and implication statewide but described Arizona’s vaccination efforts as a race against the spread of vaccine-resistant variants.
The Biodesign Institute’s warnings come as Arizona continues to reopen. Republicans who control the state Senate this week pointedly removed their masks. Owners and managers of restaurants and grocery stores are deciding whether to require employees or customers to wear masks. And a legislative committee on Wednesday was expected to consider a bill that would prohibit businesses or governments from refusing service or access to those who aren’t vaccinated.
Gov. Doug Ducey on March 25 issued an executive order lifting the ability of cities and counties to impose pandemic restrictions. Ducey cited declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, as well as rising vaccination rates, the increase in vaccine availability and the federal government’s promise for every American to be vaccinated by May 1.
Nearly 1.4 million people are fully vaccinated in Arizona, according to the most recent reports from the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“I’m confident Arizona’s businesses and citizens will continue to practice the fundamentals and act responsibly as we gradually get back to normal,” Ducey told the Associated Press.
His order effectively bars counties, cities and towns from enforcing local mask mandates, lifts restrictions on gatherings and allows restaurants, bars and nightclubs to resume full service. Flagstaff and Tucson city councils and Pima County have defied the order, voting to maintain the mask requirement.
House Bill 2190 would prohibit any state or local government from requiring a person to receive a vaccine or condition service or access based on proof of vaccination, according to a memo from Senate staff researchers. Violations would be charged as felonies.
The lifting of mask mandates has drawn mixed reactions from government leaders and businesses.
Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, said businesses should have “freedom of choice” to decide whether their employees or customers have to wear a mask.
“What it basically entails is that the business has a private operation,” he said. “They should be able to make their decisions with their business.”
Jacob Jernegan, manager of Bobby-Q BBQ in Mesa, said the restaurant continues to require staff to wear masks but does not require it of customers. He said he hasn’t seen a general increase in customers since the lifting of the restrictions but notices more customers are coming in without masks.
“This is our building, this is our restaurant,” Jernegan said. “Other people that have small businesses, that is their business.”
Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said the organization does not offer its members specific recommendations on mask-wearing. It emphasizes that restaurants should follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines and federal law.
“We’re not going to be able to solve everyone’s concerns,” Chucri said. “Some people think masks work, some people think they don’t.”
Some local businesses, on social media, signaled to customers they will continue their own mask mandates for employees and customers.
Belly Kitchen and Bar in north central Phoenix announced on Instagram it would continue to require masks and social distancing, adding, “Please respect our decision and keep our staff and community safe.”
Many major Arizona grocery stores continue to require masks – Fry’s Food Stores, Bashas’, Food City, AJ’s Fine Foods, Safeway and Albertsons – and intend to maintain sanitation and other safety protocols, according to their websites and news articles.
Despite rules implemented by businesses, employees struggle in the absence of city or statewide mandates to back them up, said Mark Miller, president of Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, which represents grocers.
“Everyone’s anxious to get back to normal,” Miller said, “but I believe most of our members are under the impression that we’re not quite ready for that yet.”
Mountainside Fitness, which publicly wrestled with Ducey’s shutdown order a year ago, announced via Twitter that it would allow patrons to forgo masks and immediately return to normal operations.
And multiple bars and nightclubs, which previously were barred from operating at full capacity, were crowded over the weekend.
The cities of Flagstaff and Tucson and Pima County have defied Ducey’s executive order against mask requirements. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego criticized his decision but the council has not acted to counter it.
In a news release, the Flagstaff City Council cited inadequate vaccination rates as well as the spread of COVID-19 variants as recurring threats to public health. Pima County and Tucson echoed that sentiment in separate media releases.
“There are still hundreds of thousands of people in Pima County who are not vaccinated and who remain at risk for serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19,” Dr. Francisco Garcia, a Pima County administrator, said in a statement.
It’s unknown whether Ducey’s office will do to communities that counter to his executive order, which prohibits local governments from issuing “any order, rule or regulation that conflicts with or is in addition the policy.”
Health researchers are still somewhat apprehensive about what lies ahead.
“The concern I come back to is, ‘How many people remain at risk?” LaBaer said. “That’s the question we need to be thinking about.”
Reporter Julia Sandor contributed to this story.