Analysis: Virus blast forces Arizona’s hand on masks

Analysis: Virus blast forces Arizona's hand on masks

PHOENIX (AP) – After telling Arizonans that many public places were being closed again amid a wave of coronavirus cases, Governor Doug Ducey ended a somewhat controversial press conference calling on people to wear face masks.

“Arm yourself with a mask,” he said Monday after issuing an order to shut down bars, nightclubs, and water parks and push back school starts in the fall. “It’s your best defense against this virus.”

While the Republican governor has never discouraged the use of masks, his heartfelt approval for it has been a major change from a largely lukewarm position in recent months.

“There are those who for any reason cannot wear masks, are short of breath or are asthmatic,” said Ducey on June 13 when asked why he should not oblige their use.

The change in tone on masks and a return to restrictions are the latest signs that Ducey, like some other Republican governors across the country, is being forced to override political considerations in mounting cases.

“He saw that he had to do something medically and even politically,” said Mike O’Neil, an Arizona pollster and political analyst. “The greater political risk would be if those numbers continue to go through the ceiling and he doesn’t act.”

A week ago, Ducey and President Donald Trump attended a Phoenix event at a church with many attendees who were not wearing masks. Ducey wore a mask in the crowd, but not during Trump’s introduction. A few days before that event, Ducey allowed mayors to mandate the wearing of masks in public places, a reversal after weeks of pressure to allow cities to slow down the spread of the virus. Ducey had opposed allowing such measures, arguing that they led to a patchwork of regulation.

“The governor made the wrong decision (on masks) early on, and he doubled that” by waiting too long for cities to decide for themselves, said state representative Reginald Bolding, a Democrat.

Several cities, including Phoenix, immediately placed mask-bearing orders. That created an uncomfortable situation for Trump’s June 23 visit: masks should technically have been worn by everyone who attended the event. The mayor, a Democrat, explained her decision to let go by saying that the aim was to educate the people and not punish the people.

Ducey had commissioned many companies to close schools and oblige them to learn online in early March. In mid-May he started breaking things open. While hospitals used the time to prepare for a series of cases, Ducey arguably did little to prepare the state for a reopening that was not just a normal return. Within a few days of taking orders, the bars were packed, large gatherings were seen in parks, and the use of masks remained sporadic.

Ducey acknowledged that on a roundabout on Monday, saying the “early message” about the virus was that it mainly affected the elderly. He said it is now clear that it can also harm young people, especially those with other health problems.

“You have seen a change in tone and direction as a result of the change and direction of the pathway of this virus,” he said Monday in answer to one of the many questions about his changing attitude. “We’re going to do what’s needed, and I mean what’s needed, to protect Arizonans’ lives and livelihoods.”

In early June, just a few weeks after the restrictions were lifted, things started to increase. In Arizona, the number has risen from 13,000 on May 15 to 74,500 on Monday, and the number of deaths from the virus has nearly doubled in the past six weeks. More than 1,500 people died.

In recent weeks, Ducey has clearly tried to find a middle ground by acknowledging the rising cases while assuring Arizonans that everything was under control and opposed a return to restrictions. He has often said that hospitals were well prepared for whatever happened, arguing about personal freedoms and the need to keep the state open to business. He has suggested that people wore masks when social distancing was not possible, but generally made it a matter of personal choice.

The state’s decision to tell hospitals on Friday to implement their crisis relief plans was likely a turning point for the governor, said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

If a hospital exceeds capacity, it must end all non-emergency surgeries and some people may receive a lower standard of care or be discharged early. Hospitals across the state had 84% capacity on Sundays. While officials said Monday it was impossible to know when they could reach 100%, there are no signs that the virus is slowing down.

“It is going to be very personal,” said Humble.

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