Virus Surges in Arizona, but the Rodeo Goes on

Testing for the coronavirus at a drive-thru testing site in Phoenix, Ariz., on Saturday, June 27, 2020. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times)
Testing for the coronavirus at a drive-thru testing site in Phoenix, Ariz., on Saturday, June 27, 2020. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times)

PHOENIX — As infections surged through Arizona’s desert landscape this week, word spread that the Round Valley Rodeo, a century-old tradition luring calf ropers, youth riders and big crowds to the mountain town of Springerville, might be called off. The fate of the Fourth of July parade in the nearby hamlet of Eagar seemed in doubt, too, as Gov. Doug Ducey prepared to issue new pandemic guidance.

But Ducey stopped short of ordering a halt to such events, and as of Friday, he had not required Arizonans to wear face coverings in public spaces, as Texas did Thursday. The rodeo and parade will march ahead Saturday as planned, even as infections in the state spiral.

Such is the way fiercely independent Arizona has handled the virus from the start. Ducey, a pro-business conservative Republican who once ran an ice cream company and is a former state treasurer, has pressed a philosophy of personal responsibility and individual choice. That has largely left individuals in Arizona to decide for themselves whether to go to gyms, churches, rallies — or rodeos.

“It’s a story of missed opportunities,” says Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and a former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, who left that office in 2015. “We came out of a successful stay-at-home order without any compliance expectations and no enforcement provisions. As a result, we’re the new Madrid.”

For months, Ducey and other Arizona leaders resisted enforcing strict mandates to combat the coronavirus, making it one of the nation’s most cavalier states when it comes to COVID-19, but as cases have skyrocketed and intensive care beds have filled to near capacity in the state’s hospitals, Arizona’s leaders are being forced to rethink their hands-off approach.

The state moved slower than some to issue a stay-at-home order, and then reopened quickly and widely for business. For many weeks, Ducey resisted the notion that the government should set exacting limits on what residents may do, and barred local governments from enacting tougher measures than the state’s to combat the virus. In addition, authorities in Arizona sent mixed messages on key issues from the use of masks to how they would enforce social distancing rules.

Across the Sun Belt, cases have soared. Coronavirus hospitalizations in Texas reached a new high Friday as explosive growth continued around most of the state’s largest cities. In Florida, more than 9,400 new cases were announced Friday, the third-highest daily total of the pandemic.

And in Arizona, the crisis is deepening. More than 3,000 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in the state Thursday, the most yet on any single day of the pandemic. More than 90% of adult intensive care beds were filled in Arizona hospitals. And during the first three days of July alone, more than 12,400 new cases were announced statewide.

In recent weeks, as cases doubled in Arizona, Ducey has put some restrictions back in place, ordering taverns, theaters and gyms closed and reversing his order that local governments not set more restrictive rules. But health experts say those steps may be too modest to quickly bring the cases under control. Even now, Ducey is meeting resistance in a state that prizes self-determination.

Asked to address criticisms of Arizona’s handling of the virus, including concerns about the enforcement of social distancing since reopening, Daniel Ruiz, the state’s chief operating officer, defended the state’s response. He said that while Arizona had relied more on voluntary compliance early on, it has toughened enforcement since the resurgence in infections, which officials say they trace, in part, to Memorial Day gatherings.

“We wanted to give the operator the ability to come into compliance before taking legal action,” he said of people running businesses. He added that the state was taking a different tack now: “I would say we are really working with our citizens, the business community and law enforcement to make sure that these practices are followed.”

The governor’s office did not make Ducey available for an interview.

Over the last week, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is home to 4.5 million people, has averaged more than 2,500 new cases each day. Pima County, which includes Tucson, averaged nearly 300.

As known virus cases reached above 91,000 statewide, Ducey this week activated crisis protocols that could permit overwhelmed hospitals to deny care to patients whose age or health history make them poor candidates for recovery. When Vice President Mike Pence visited Phoenix on Wednesday, Ducey asked him to send another 500 medical workers to the state to help hospital teams depleted by exhaustion and illness.

But even amid the rising cases and businesses ordered to close again, there has been firm pushback.

Some gyms across the state defied orders to close. Many restaurants — not shuttered as bars were — stayed packed. And large gatherings — President Donald Trump addressed a megachurch in Phoenix late last month — may proceed.

Since the governor began permitting local jurisdictions to set limits stricter than the state’s last month, a patchwork of rules has emerged, as have clashes over them.

Maricopa County passed regulations requiring face coverings in public. The staff at Antique Sugar, a vintage clothing boutique in Phoenix, got so much abuse about the mask requirement that the shop erected a signboard outside: “We’ll be happy to debate the efficacy of masks with you when this is all over and you come in to sell your dead grandmother’s clothes.”

At an upscale golf course development outside Scottsdale, a woman rebuffed a barista who told her masks were required and turned down the mask he was offering. “It’s people your age who are more the problem,” she said, noting the rise in cases among young people.

In the earliest months of the pandemic, Ducey took modest steps that the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry applauded as “just right” but that some mayors and Democratic leaders decried as too halting. Public schools were initially closed for two weeks, a term later extended. Bars, gyms, theaters and dine-in restaurant services at first closed only in counties with confirmed coronavirus cases.

On March 23, with stay-at-home orders planned across the nation, Ducey declared Arizona, which had far fewer cases than the Northeast, “not there yet.” His executive order listed businesses that would not be required to close even in the event of further restrictions, including salons and spas, golf courses, payday lenders and firearms dealers.

“My first reaction was, ‘So what’s closed?’ ” said Wendy Smith-Reeve, who was Arizona’s director of emergency management at the time.

Smith-Reeve quit a few days later and in an interview offered a cutting assessment of the governor’s early handling of the virus. She described a piecemeal response that ignored the state’s emergency management plan and overlooked people harmed by the virus, including Arizona prison guards and inmates.

Ducey imposed a statewide stay-at-home order March 31, later extending the order to May 15, despite angry protests from some who called for the reopening of businesses. But May 4, the day before Trump traveled to Phoenix to tour a Honeywell mask plant, Ducey announced that he would accelerate the state’s phased reopening.

“We’re proud of you, Doug,” Trump, who had encouraged governors to reopen their states, told Ducey while he was in Arizona. “Anything we can do, you’re going to call me.”

While some people criticized the reopening as coming too early, others leaders, including Humble, the former state health services official, said it was effective.

“It flattened the percentage of positives, the number of cases stabilized, and it gave us some us some planning time,” he said. “Our problem was we came out of it with just recommendations for how you should function, no compliance system and no one to file a complaint to. It was the honor system.”

Soon after businesses began reopening in May, bars were filled. Nightclubs offered free Champagne to celebrating crowds. Photos circulated online showing CASA, a bar in Tempe, packed with maskless patrons.

Some county sheriffs refused to cite violators of social distancing rules, and some city officials opposed local mask ordinances.

Attorneys affiliated with the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Phoenix, provided free legal representation to Merita Kraja, a restaurateur in Fountain Hills who fought a Maricopa County sheriff’s office citation that accused her of allowing patrons to eat in her breezeway during a ban on dine-in service.

“When you try to make crimes out of what ought to be a public health issue, the government runs into some real problems,” Jon Riches, the Goldwater Institute’s director of national litigation, said. A court agreed, saying that Kraja’s actions did not warrant a criminal conviction.

“All I want is to run my business,” Kraja said in an interview.

In Eagar, the July Fourth parade that has boasted the likes of John Wayne among its horseback participants in years gone by will step off at 10 a.m. Saturday as planned, Bryce Hamblin, Eagar’s mayor, said. The town in eastern Arizona would “err on the side of freedom,” he said, pandemic or no. Thousands of tourists are expected.

Hamblin said he spoke to an aide to Ducey last week and said he came away with an understanding of the governor’s guidance. “What I get from his orders is he’s leaving this stuff to our local governments, and he’s not going to affect people’s constitutional rights,” Hamblin said. “I can’t think of a better example than the Fourth of July for celebrating those freedoms.”

Of calls he has received urging him to cancel the event, Hamblin said, “I’ve gotten attention from all around the world and people that don’t have real good things to say. But I’m not the mayor of the world. I’m the mayor of Eagar, and we’ve got to move on.”

Hamblin said that mask-wearers were, of course, welcome at the event.

“I don’t want to be insensitive to the disease and the impact it has on some people, but it’s not going away,” he said. “Everybody’s going to get it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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