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Ducey tosses COVID capacity limits for Az bars, restaurants

Pima County relaxes public health advisory, no longer calling for curfew

Citing a decline in new coronavirus cases, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday ordered that capacity limits invoked last year for restaurants and bars, gyms, theaters and other public gathering spaces be lifted. Physical distancing and mask protocols will remain in place.

Pima County officials said Friday morning that the county's operational guidelines for restaurants "remain in effect," but later said that the Board of Supervisors would look at modifications to conform the local rules with Ducey's order.

Friday afternoon, the county relaxed its public health advisory, eliminating the voluntary curfew and increasing the size of allowable gatherings from 10 or fewer people to 25 or fewer.

In July, as Arizonans endured the first wave of COVID-19 cases and was described as a "global hot spot" for the disease, Ducey ordered that bars, restaurants and other gathering spots limit their occupancy to half of normal. That statewide restriction was rescinded Friday as the Republican governor issued a new executive order.

"For businesses, physical distancing and mask protocols will remain in place, however specific occupancy percentage limitations will expire. This applies to restaurants, gyms, theaters, water parks, bowling alleys, and bars providing dine in services," a statement from Ducey's office said.

"It's still important to keep our guard up, and these protocols reflect that approach," the press release said.

Another 2,276 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Arizona on Friday, with 84 deaths added to make a total of 16,269 state residents who have died from the coronavirus. More than 823,000 Arizonans have been infected with the virus in the past year.

Ducey's executive order comes as Republican governors around the country declare their states "open," pulling back some public health measures and, in several instances, lifting statewide mask orders. Ducey never imposed a statewide order to wear face-coverings, and for months last year restricted any local authorities from mandating masks. He finally relented on that in June as the summer wave of cases felled many state residents.

Pima County officials were not informed of the governor's action Friday prior to him announcing it to the press. The county has had a 50 percent occupancy limit for restaurants and other public assembly areas since late May.

The Pima measure "setting operational guidelines for restaurants" was modified in July to match the order Ducey issued that month. That proclamation "remains in effect" until the Board of Supervisors "has an opportunity to modify it," said a county spokesman.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he will ask the Board of Supervisors to "modify the county's operational rules and guidelines for restaurants and bars" at their next meeting.

"It's worth noting that today's action by the governor restores occupancy limits similar to what the board had imposed in May, allowing for occupancy greater than 50 percent if distancing could be maintained," Huckelberry said in an emailed statement sent Friday evening. "In order to match the state's more restrictive requirements, the Board of Supervisors modified operational rules and guidelines for restaurants in July, to include the tighter occupancy limit."

Ducey's order will maintain the ban on cities, towns and counties from implementing any measures more restrictive than the governor allows.

Customers will still be required to wear masks when not seated at their tables in restaurants, under Ducey's latest executive order.

Pima County officials said Friday afternoon that they had "relaxed some of the protective practices we have recommended to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19."

"The community transmission of the virus has fallen from High to Substantial, which means the voluntary curfew is no longer necessary and we can increase the size of gatherings from 10 or fewer to 25 or fewer," said Dr. Theresa Cullen, head of the county Health Department, and Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medial officer.

"We're also reopening our parks to organized sports use, but with limitations to prevent the spread of the virus. Our case counts are falling and our vaccination rates are rising," they said.

Pima County had tried to institute a mandatory curfew, aimed at limiting people crowding into bars and restaurants late at night, but that measure was rejected in court and officials have asked for residents to stick to a voluntary limit on late-night activities.

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"This is all good and welcome news as we enter the second year of the pandemic," they wrote in a public announcement Friday. "But let us be very clear – this pandemic is not over. Far from it. Hundreds of people are still contracting the virus every week and people are still dying from this disease."

"This is not the time to let our guard down," Cullen and Garcia said. "Several hundred thousand people in our county are still at risk for contracting COVID-19 and there is still a very real risk of the more virulent strains of COVID-19 that could be devastating if they are established here."

"Everyone still needs to be vigilant and protect themselves and others from the disease," the Pima officials said. "Please, continue to wear your masks. Continue to keep your distance. Continue to reduce your exposure risk by avoiding public gatherings and staying home as much as possible. Please continue to wash your hands routinely."

Ducey also called on people to continue to be cautious.

"Unlike other states, we never did a shutdown here in Arizona. We withstood the calls from the extremes on both sides, and we will continue to ignore them. We always knew that fighting this virus would be dependent on the personal responsibility of everyday Arizonans," Ducey said in a press release.

"Arizona has made its way out of the winter surge of cases," Ducey said, touting the state's vaccination program. "The announcement follows 7 weeks of declining cases in Arizona, and the distribution of more than 2 million vaccines," his press release said.

"Today's announcement is a measured approach; we are not in the clear yet," he said. "We need to continue practicing personal responsibility. Wear a mask. Social distance. Stay home when you're sick and wash your hands frequently."

In Pima County, there were 215 new cases of COVID-19 and 7 additional deaths reported Friday.

. More than 110,000 Pima residents have been infected with the virus, and 2,254 have died from it thus far.

Ducey also ordered that professional sports will be able to operate, under plans approved by state health officials.

"Spring training and major league sports will have the ability to operate upon submission and approval of a plan to the Arizona Department of Health Services that demonstrates implementation of safety precautions and physical distancing," the press release from his office said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Ducey at a press conference, March 17, 2020.

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