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What happens to Arizona businesses if good COVID-19 metrics go bad?

(Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – When Arizona debuted its COVID-19 business benchmarks earlier this month, La Paz County’s metrics were in the range that triggers reopenings.

In the first update of the Arizona Department of Health Services’ benchmark data, La Paz fell out of the required moderate spread range.

The state’s detailed reopening plan for how and when businesses forced to close June 29 under Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order — indoor gyms, bars/nightclubs, indoor theaters, water parks and tubing operators — didn’t address such back-and-forth situations.

But Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona’s health director, said Friday that the state wouldn’t immediately force business to close again in yo-yo counties.

“So what we’re looking at is we want to see a sustained response,” she told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show.

“So if a county goes … back into substantial for one week, we are not going to ask people to shut down.”

But reclosing businesses remains an option if the metrics don’t improve.

“If it goes on two or three weeks, we may ask them to implement the measures that were in place during the substantial spread, and then that way that will allow us to continue to have an impact on containing COVID-19,” Christ said.

So even though La Paz is no longer technically in the moderate range according to the benchmarks, business subject to the Ducey’s closure order there can remain open.

Four of the state’s 15 counties were in the officially in the moderate range per the latest data: Yavapai, Cochise, Greenlee and Coconino.

The state updates its COVID-19 business dashboard, which debuted Aug. 10 and shows where each county stands in terms of community spread level based on three metrics, every Thursday.

Impacted businesses can start reopening – under capacity restrictions and while following other health requirements that vary by industry — in counties in the moderate community spread range or better in all three benchmarks for at least the most recent two weeks of data.

The moderate range is defined as 10-100 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents, a PCR test positive percentage rate of 5-10% and a rate of hospital visits for COVID-like illness of 5-10%.

Further reopening will be permitted when spread improves to the minimal level for at least two weeks, defined as fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 residents, a positive test rate below 5% and a hospital COVID-like illness rate below 5%.

Two of those benchmarks, cases and COVID-like illness rate, account for population differences among counties.

But in a sparsely populated La Paz County, which has around 21,000 residents, just a few positives can cause large swings in the positivity rate because so little testing is done.

In the three most recent weeks of data included in the business benchmark dashboard, La Paz went from 5.7% to 10.9% (above the moderate threshold) to 3.8%.

The 5.7% figure was based off just 123 tests reported for the week starting July 19, according to the state’s in-depth COVID-19 dashboard, which gets updated daily and is the basis of the weekly business dashboard.

The next week, when La Paz went out of the moderate range, only 54 tests were reported, with six positives. The following week saw 53 tests and two positives.

Christ said the state would investigate when county benchmarks go from moderate or minimal into the substantial range.

“We’re going to work with that local public health department to identify what may be going on in that community, potentially get additional testing in there,” she said.

It might not matter in La Paz, which as of Friday had zero positive results from the 36 tests recorded for the week starting Aug. 9.

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