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Romero pushes mandatory COVID-19 curfew in Tucson

White House report: 'Arizona must increase mitigation back to the summer interventions'

Tucson is poised to declare a mandatory nightly curfew as part of an effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with Mayor Romero calling a special meeting of the City Council for Tuesday.

The curfew would be effective 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. nightly through December 22, if approved by the Council.

"After consulting with public health experts and local hospitals, we have determined that additional steps are necessary to control the surge of COVID-19 cases," said Mayor Regina Romero. "We are at an inflection point and our actions today will determine what happens in the next three weeks."

"These mitigation steps will prevent all of us from having to take much more drastic measures" such as a stay-at-home order or lockdown," Romero said during a Monday afternoon press conference.

Statewide there have been at least 326,817 COVID-19 cases, including 822 new infections Monday, according to the daily report from the Arizona Department of Public Health Services. More than 6,600 Arizonans have died from the disease. More than 24,000 new infections have been reported in just the past week. Arizona has been in the coronavirus "red zone" for weeks, according to secret White House task force reports that have been leaked to the press.

Last week, that White House report, which was provided to Gov. Doug Ducey but not released to the public by state officials, declared that "Arizona is in full resurgence and must increase mitigation back to the summer interventions. Hospitalizations are rising rapidly and Arizona must mitigate to flatten the curve."

A group of University of Arizona experts said that the numbers of COVID-19 infections here will "likely exceed twice the prior (summer) peak in the next two weeks," putting local hospitals into a crisis.

The proposed Tucson curfew, which would take effect Tuesday night, would bar people from being in public places, except for specific exemptions for essential activities.

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Both local and federal officials have pointed to people not practicing proper social distancing measures in public spaces as a significant factor in the dramatic resurgence of the virus — habits that are made worse when people consume alcohol at night in social situations.

Enforcement of what Romero called a "preliminary step" would target people in businesses and focus on educating individuals on the importance of staying home as much as possible, said City Councilman Paul Cunningham.

"My colleagues on the Council and I are asking each and every Tucsonan to do their part to slow the spread, especially for our family and friends working in our hospitals. We need statewide action, and I strongly urge Gov. Ducey to act swiftly to protect the health of Arizonans," Romero said.

"I know this may cause hardship for some businesses in our community. That is why at the special meeting tomorrow, I will also ask my colleagues on the Council to pass additional economic relief for workers, families, and small businesses," Romero said. "More support will be needed, and I urge both Gov. Ducey and Congress to act as soon as possible to provide additional economic relief."

"We've waited and waited and waited for the governor, and despite a huge surge we have not seen any meaningful action from Gov. Ducey," Romero said, noting that Ducey declined to speak with her about the move, and that he has refused her phone calls since March.

Cunningham and Councilman Steve Kozachik indicated they'll vote for the curfew. The City Council will meet virtually at 5 p.m. Tuesday to vote on the measure, and discuss the city's COVID relief efforts for businesses. No call to the public will be held during the special meeting.

"People are going to complain about this being overreach, or the 'heavy hand of government,'" Kozachik told TucsonSentinel.com. "I sat and watched in disbelief all weekend the millions of people who filled planes and airports as if we were just experiencing a bad flu season. I told the mayor earlier today that I totally support the 8 p.m. curfew, that I'm sorry so many people have acted in ways that ignore the recommendations of the public health authorities, and that we should absolutely align ourselves with what the hospitals will be requesting of the governor."

From Romero's office:

During the specified times, this curfew would prohibit all persons from using, standing, sitting, traveling or being present on any public street or in any public place, including for the purpose of travel, with the following exemptions:

  • All law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics or other medical personnel, and any other emergency response personnel;
  • Persons traveling directly to and from work; attending religious services; commercial trucking and delivery services; caring for a family member, friend, or animal; patronizing or operating a business that is an Essential Function; seeking medical care or fleeing dangerous circumstances; engaging in Essential Activities; and travel for any of the above services or purposes;
  • Persons engaged in or traveling to perform or receive Essential Functions; and
  • Persons who are homeless.

"From an enforcement standpoint we need to apply proper flexibility so that we don't infringe on our values of freedoms and rights, but balance them with an addition to the social contract that can help protect public heath," Cunningham said.

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The curfew "doesn't directly require any business to shut down at any particular time," said City Attorney Mike Rankin.

"The goal is compliance," Rankin said, noting that while violating a public health emergency order is a misdemeanor in Arizona with a potential fine of $2,500, Tucson will only press criminal charges as a last resort. "The process will include an opportunity for diversion" for violators who refuse to comply when informed of the curfew.

"We're not going to be running around pulling over people," Cunningham told the Sentinel. "There'll be a perfect storm if we don't act now. We've seen the state isn't going to make the hard decisions. It isn't fun to do the unpopular thing."

Romero and Rankin indicated that the measure wasn't directed at closing businesses at night, but at encouraging people to stay home as much as possible to slow the rate of infections before hospitals are overwhelmed.

In March, Ducey issued an executive order outlining which businesses are "essential services" throughout the state, declaring that counties and municipalities could not regulate them more than state authorities determine.

Local hospitals are at 90 percent capacity, and "we are set to experience a major crisis by Christmas" with doctors being forced to determine which patients receive immediate care and which can be delayed," said Dr. Joe Gerald, the team leader of the UA modeling group that has been making recommendations based on examining COVID-19 data in the state. "COVID-19 could make up a majority of cases in local hospitals," he said during a streaming press conference with Romero on Monday afternoon.

Ducey stands pat despite White House recommendations to increase restrictions

Last week, Pima County officials declared a voluntary nightly curfew at 10 p.m., but Gov. Doug Ducey has blocked counties from instituting mandatory curfew measures.

Ducey has repeatedly signaled he doesn't intend to impose any additional restrictions as the pandemic again spikes in the state. He has dodged questions about what level of new infections and deaths would prompt him to take measures such as returning to the modest "stay at home" order he announced earlier this year when the COVID-19 outbreak here was at lower levels.

City officials don't see their curfew as a "challenge to the governor's authority," said Rankin. The city has its own authority under state law and the City Charter, and Ducey does not have the "legal power to wipe away the authority of others" despite the limits declared in his executive orders, he said Monday.

"It is necessary to take this additional step due to the accelerating nature of the pandemic in our community," Pima County Health Director Theresa Cullen said. "While we appreciate the efforts of the majority of residents to slow the spread of the virus, a segment of the population continues to participate in social gatherings and resist the use of masks which exacerbates an already critical situation."

Matt Heinz, a hospital physician who was just elected to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, said last week that the county's voluntary curfew doesn't go far enough.

"We need an enforced curfew right now in Pima County or else we won't have a single available ICU or step-down bed by the second week of December. Period. That’s what the data shows," said Heinz, who will take office on January 1. "And I believe based on what I’m seeing on the ground that the actual time will be much sooner — end of month probably."

"We also need to close bars, and restaurants must be limited to carry out and outdoor dining only," Heinz told TucsonSentinel.com, pointing to a return to the measures that were in place in the spring.

Kozachik called on University of Arizona officials to institute mandatory testing for students and staff, which the school's leaders have resisted.

"Maybe the UA will even pay attention and adopt a responsible mandatory testing policy for every student who flies back into Tucson after the break to take classes," he said. "Otherwise this is going to drag on well into next year and families and businesses will only continue to suffer."

The secret White House Coronavirus Task Force report sent last week to Ducey advised that all universities in the state should mandate weekly COVID-19 testing for all students, whether they live on campus or not, when they return to class after winter break. "Planning for that must being now," the administration report said.

The "silent community spread" from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic infected individuals must be combated with a giant testing effort and "significant behavior change of all Americans," the White House task force said last week.

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In addition to ensuring masks at all times in public, Arizona must "increase physical distancing through significant reduction in capacity in public and private indoor spaces, and ensure every American understands the clear risks of ANY family or friend interactions outside of their immediate household indoors without masks," the White House report said. "Public spaces where masking is not possible must have a significant reduction in capacity or close."

The outbreak in Arizona is "not going to crash under its own weight," the UA's Gerald said. "If we do nothing, there are enough susceptible Arizonans" for the pandemic to continue "for many, many weeks after Christmas."

"Nature will literally take its course, with orders of magnitude more cases, more hospitalizations, more deaths," the analyst said.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Romero at a March press conference.