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As COVID-19 Cases Surge In Arizona, State Scraps Earlier Guidelines

NOEL KING, HOST:

Over the summer, Arizona had one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world. To bring it under control, state lawmakers instituted rules for closing businesses. And the numbers dropped. But recently, the state scrapped those rules even though cases were soaring again. Here's Katherine Davis-Young from member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: In June, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Arizona more than tripled. And Governor Doug Ducey took action, ordering bars, gyms, movie theaters and water parks to close. Cases fell dramatically. Then in August, Ducey announced a set of rules for allowing those businesses to gradually reopen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG DUCEY: We want to provide as much certainty and clarity as possible during a very uncertain time. We believe this is the most responsible way to safely reopen.

DAVIS-YOUNG: The August plan laid out three clear benchmarks for reopening based on data about the virus' spread. When a county exceeded the benchmarks, the state said those targeted businesses would have to stay closed. By late summer, most counties' virus numbers had fallen enough to begin phased business reopenings. Then, in November, cases started soaring again. And now most Arizona counties have passed all three benchmarks. But unlike in the summer, the state isn't requiring businesses to close. Many hospital leaders say it should. And they're calling for other actions.

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MARJORIE BESSEL: No. 1, stopping indoor dining and moving dining outdoors. No. 2, no gatherings greater than 25 persons and encouraging and supporting enforcement of local ordinances.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Dr. Marjorie Bessel is chief clinical officer of Banner Health. She says the state needs to take action to avoid crisis. Arizona's ICU beds are at 91% capacity with no signs the virus is slowing down. But in a regular weekly report updating outbreak statistics Friday, the state health department quietly slipped in a change to the benchmarks. Business closures are no longer required, except for some bars and nightclubs, even at the highest level of virus spread. Dr. Cara Crist, head of the department, now says the rules were really never meant to be used to decide when businesses should close.

CARA CHRIST: We continue to watch the data and look at that. But those were really designed to be reopening benchmarks.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Ducey says businesses already have enough safety measures in place and says most of the spread is now happening in homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUCEY: I don't know what role you think the government can have in private home settings. That's why we're trying to educate the public.

DAVIS-YOUNG: There's no hard evidence private gatherings are the biggest source of spread in the state. Arizona doesn't release statewide contact tracing information to indicate where infections occur. But Ducey and Christ say personal responsibility is the most important mitigation measure right now. Dr. Joe Gerald, associate professor of public health policy at the University of Arizona, says that may not be enough.

JOE GERALD: I don't think we can just rely on humans to do the right thing. It just is not a very effective strategy.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Without policy intervention, Gerald says, Arizona's outbreak is likely to get even worse.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "THE WELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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