PHOENIX — Arizona enters mid-August getting higher grades from national experts for better managing the spread of COVID-19. The metrics are still high, and community spread continues, but the pace is slowing.
The state finds itself where it was just before the COVID spike in June with numbers going in the right direction and businesses pushing to open their doors immediately. ABC15 has learned some establishments have been given permission to reopen without meeting the state’s criteria.
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As of August 14, 89 gyms, 95 bars serving food, and five movie theaters have requested to reopen by submitting a proposal to the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS). Only two gyms were approved and four were denied. As of Monday afternoon, ADHS had received 500 online applications and is reviewing them as quickly as possible, generally in the order they came in.
These applications have been denied, though each business has the opportunity to request an Informal Settlement Conference with the Department:
4th Ave. Gym Foothills, Gym
Achieve Strength and Fitness, Gym
Brennans Pub & Grub, Bar with Food
Rockabilly Grill, Bar with Food
In addition to providing benchmarks to guide the safe reopening of certain businesses, the state has provided a way for businesses to reopen sooner if they submit plans that follow even more stringent safety practices than will be required for those reopening when transmission benchmarks reach the moderate phase.
Because each proposal represents a unique business, there is no one size fits all approach when considering individual plans. Our overriding goal is protecting public health in a given business setting.
Gyms, bars and nightclubs are in the highest risk category. Governor Doug Ducey ordered them closed at the end of June when cases began moving toward record highs.
The pressure by those businesses to get back to normal could potentially force a repeat of the mistakes made in May, says University of Arizona Public Health Policy expert Dr. Joe Gerald. “It’s not safe for the state to reopen right now on mass or in total. We’re not there yet,” Dr. Gerald told ABC15.
Still, gyms are keen to make money again, pay their employees, and deliver their services. They want to open, though they’re realistic, says Meredith DeAngelis, Chief Marketing Officer for Village Health Clubs and Spa.
“We want to get it right,” DeAngelis told ABC15. “We don’t want to be shut down a third time.”
The Village Health Club and Spas were forced to shut down twice during the pandemic. They have applied with the state to reopen. In the meantime, they wait.
“The waiting game is of course really hard. You submit something, then you hear that other clubs are already approved,” said DeAngelis. “So, you’re excited that things are moving along, and that people are getting approved. But, again, you don’t know where you are in that process, how soon they’re going to look at your application, and then also you’re not really certain of if what you submitted is or isn’t enough.”
ADHS released guidance one week ago that recommends businesses remain closed until its benchmarks are met. However, in keeping with a court order to give businesses opportunities to re-open, ADHS offers a workaround. If benchmarks for community spread are not met, and they currently haven’t been, the business can ask for a waiver through an informal settlement conference with the department.
If they’re cleared to open, ADHS promises the businesses will be required to apply stringent safety protocols.
Dr. Gerald says the loophole could be risky if applied on a large scale and Arizona rushes back as it infamously did in May. “Case counts are at least twice as high as they were back in early mid-May, when we were contemplating reopening the first time,” Dr. Gerald said. “I think we should only entertain resuming those activities when case counts are really, really, well under control, and so in my personal opinion, we’re not quite there yet.”
Dr. Gerald suggests Arizona take a cautious, measured approach, and then evaluate the impact the steps have had on the overall case count, “And, if things continue to look well then we should continue to reopen our economy slowly.”
ABC15 reached out to the governor’s office about the benchmarks not being met, and they say this is part of the recent court order and the state is complying with that order.
In an email, spokesperson Patrick Ptak wrote, “businesses granted approval have demonstrated to public health officials they are going above and beyond the guidance provided, and we’re going to be very vigilant to work with local authorities on enforcement to ensure all businesses are in compliance with the guidance.”
Ptak also said that ADHS is working to post a list of businesses that receive approval to reopen on its website.
“If a business is given the authority to reopen following an informal settlement conference with ADHS, the business must sign and post the attestation form in a public place. In signing the form, businesses attest they are “in compliance with COVID-19 guidance related to business operations,'” said Ptak.