PHOENIX – Arizonans are going to have to live under stay-at-home orders, at least for the next few weeks.
But when they do go out shopping – something already permitted – they will soon have more choices.
And they might even be able to dine out by May 15.
Gov. Doug Ducey said Wednesday there just isn’t the data from the state Department of Health Services to show Arizona has beaten back the COVID-19 outbreak to allow his order to self-destruct as scheduled on Thursday night.
“There is not a trend,’’ he said. “And what I’m looking for, what (health Director) Dr. Cara Christ are looking for are trends.’’ So he has extended his stay-at-home order, first issued a month ago, through at least May 15.
But the governor said he does feel comfortable enough to allow some retail businesses, shuttered under a separate order, to open their doors – just a little bit at first.
Effective Monday, the kinds of businesses that he has not designated as “essential’’ will be able to sell items out the front door. So, for example, everything from furniture stores and jewelers to beauty salons can offer products to drive-up and delivery customers.
Then, by Friday, they actually can allow customers in the door – providing they “establish and implement protocols and best practices.’’ That specifically includes requirements for “social distancing’’ of at least six feet.
But there won’t be any shopping at retailers located inside malls unless customers can access the stores through an exterior entrance.
And bars will remain closed other than the ability to sell to drive-up and delivery customers.
Restaurants are a different story.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott agreed to allow them to open up but with an occupancy of no more than 25 percent of capacity. Ducey, however, who keeps repeating his experience as owner of Cold Stone Creamery, said that’s not acceptable.
“Anybody that’s ever run a restaurant knows that 25 percent is just the surest way to continually lose a lot more money,’’ he said.
But Ducey provided no specific rules or even guidelines for exactly how he believes they can operate safely. Instead the governor said he is working on a plan “in cooperation with the restaurant industry’’ to find a way to allow them to reopen in a way that makes sense for the operators and is attractive to diners while keeping everyone safe.
When all that will be ready is another question.
“Our goal is to do that sometime in May,’’ the governor said.
“We are aspiratonal at this time,’’ he continued. “The best case scenario, according to the industry, would be on May 12.’’
And Ducey made it clear that, for the time being, things won’t be the way they were before he shut them down in March.
“When you do walk in to one of those opened restaurants for dine-in, it will be a different experience,’’ he said. At the very least, the governor said, diners should expect is that the employees all will be wearing masks.
One thing Ducey did make clear is that his word is law – and that individual cities are not free to conclude that local health conditions require that restaurants and retailers remain closed longer than what he directs.
“When I give guidance statewide, it is statewide, and it is enforceable by law,’’ he said in response to a question by Capitol Media Services.
Ducey did say, though, he might consider enacting rules on a county-by-county basis.
There is precedent for that: His original closure orders applied only to counties where residents tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Ducey said that none of this easing of restrictions will matter – or will help struggling businesses – if Arizonans are not comfortable with going out.
The governor said a business executive he did not identify told him that probably 30 percent of Arizonans are primed and ready to go out.
Another 30 percent, Ducey said, may be uncomfortable resuming normal activities until there actually is a vaccine to protect people against COVID-19. He said, though, they may be “persuadable.’’
What that leaves – and what businesses will need – is that 40 percent somewhere in the middle. But that, the governor said, will require them to believe that a restaurant is cleaner, that social distancing is being enforced, “that the server and the food people on the line not only had a mask on where appropriate but they had gloves.’’
And it might even require restaurants to go to disposable menus to prevent the virus from spreading from customer to customer.
Ducey said he’s gotten “pretty close to 100 percent cooperation’’ with his existing orders from business owners. But he acknowledged that there has been a frustration, to the point where some business owners, including a few who attended a march on the Capitol earlier this month, had threatened to fully reopen this Friday regardless of what the governor decided.
The governor said he’s not about to let that happen.
“This is an order that is enforceable by law,’’ he said. “A violation is a $2,500 fine and up to six months in jail.’’
There’s another side to the governor’s decision to relax rules for businesses: employees who are uncomfortable going back to work because they fear exposure to COVID-19, whether for themselves or not wanting to bring it home to a medically fragile family member. That raises the possibility they could lose their unemployment benefits.
“We’re going to have flexibility around this,’’ Ducey said. But he said altering the rules might require him to work with legislative leaders.
The governor said his decisions to not allow his stay-at-home order to expire and to not simply allow all businesses to operate should not come as any surprise.
“I don’t think anybody ever believed that on May 1 we would have a return to normalcy in Arizona,’’ he said.