PHOENIX - Gyms and some bars across metro Phoenix and Tucson were allowed to reopen Thursday as coronavirus transmission numbers in several Arizona counties dropped to moderate levels that let the businesses restart with capacity limits.
Maricopa and Pima counties, the state's two most populous, fell from substantial transmission levels they had seen when the Arizona Department of Health Services published the guidelines for business reopenings early this month.
Also falling to moderate transmission levels were Apache and Navajo counties. The four joined five smaller counties that were already in the reopening category.
Pinal County failed to meet the metrics for reopening, a surprise because Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said earlier this week that it had also been expected to see a decrease in cases.
Six of 15 Arizona counties remain in the higher category where gyms, bars, nightclubs and water parks can’t reopen without a state waiver.
Many gyms weren't waiting for virus numbers to be posted, reopening well before the expected 9 a.m. posting.
One that opened before sunrise has been in a protracted legal battle with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey over his business closure orders. Mountainside Fitness had vowed to open Thursday with aggressive precautions regardless, and patrons lined up before dawn to work out.
“What it comes down to is to be safe and to make sure you're following the restrictions,” said a masked Eric Beer, who spoke with 3 TV (KTVK) before working out. “I don't feel like I'm at risk at all. I think they're doing what they should be doing and that's being safe.”
The reopenings occurred even as the state surpassed 200,000 virus cases. State health officials reported 680 new cases Thursday, bringing the total since the pandemic hit to 200,139. It also reported 33 new deaths, bringing that total to 4,929.
The number of infections is thought to be higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.
Arizona is also seeing steady decreases in hospitalizations, intensive care bed usage and people with severe cases of COVID-19 needing ventilators to breathe. Just 895 people were hospitalized for the virus Wednesday, down from a mid-July peak of more than 3,500. The number of intensive care beds occupied by virus patients is now at 311, the lowest since May 21, and ventilator use was at 176, down from a July 17 peak of 687.
School reopening guidelines are slightly different, requiring counties to meet three thresholds for two weeks before schools can reopen for partial, or hybrid, in-person instruction. Just four small counties met those parameters Thursday — Apache, La Paz, Greenlee and Yavapai. Christ, the health services director, said earlier this week that major counties are likely to meet reopening metrics by Labor Day.
Gyms, bars and nightclubs, movie theatres and water parks were ordered to close on June 29 by Ducey as the state experienced a huge surge in coronavirus cases.
State guidelines drafted by Christ’s department say gyms can reopen at 25% capacity once a county hits moderate transmission rates but must commit to implementing strategies to prevent the spread of the virus. Gyms are also urged to use a reservation system.
Bars and nightclubs can open at 50% occupancy levels, but only if they convert to restaurant service and implement stringent health department guidelines. Bars with no food service must remain closed.
Water parks and movie theatres also are allowed to reopen at 50% capacity once their county hits the moderate spread measurement.
Five smaller counties — Cochise, Coconino, Greenlee, LaPaz and Yavapai — were previously rated at “moderate.” Greenlee dropped to “minimal” spread Thursday.
In other developments Thursday, University of Arizona President Dr. Robert Robbins said the school had identified two students infected with the coronavirus after testing wastewater coming from a dormitory.
Robbins said at his regular media briefing that university researchers developed the testing procedure that led to the discovery of the infected but asymptomatic students in Likens Hall, which can house about 370 students.
“We went over, we tested all the students and staff that worked there in Likens and we found two positive cases which we moved over to isolation,” Robbins said. “So we think this is going to be a very valuable tool to help us get out in front.”
The fall term started this week at UofA in Tucson, and about 30,000 students are attending classes, most remotely. The university has a robust test, trace and treat program in place and has identified 46 virus cases. Infected students are moved to an isolation dorm.
For most people, COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a few weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.