Is Arizona Headed for a Second Wave?

Recently, Arizona passed the one-month mark since they began reopening the state. Ever since, small businesses have had to handle procedures with little to no direction from their government on how to safely conduct business or what to do when someone associated with them inevitably tests positive for COVID-19.

First, here’s a quick timeline of Arizona’s reopening for reference:

  • March 20th: Governor Doug Ducey issues an executive order, part of which mandates that all restaurants close their dining rooms until May 11th.
  • May 11th: The executive order expires. Dining rooms reopen but the governor recommends that people limit their time in public for their own safety.
  • May 15th: Stay-at-home orders expire throughout the state.
  • June 2nd: Arizona reports that the number of COVID-19 cases has reached an all-time high. As a result, some public health experts recommend hospitals start their emergency plans.

In the midst of rising cases and unclear reopening procedures, small businesses like restaurants make their own rules as they struggle to profit and still protect customers and staff.

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How are restaurants handling reopening?

Since dining rooms went back in business, many restaurants, brewpubs and similar establishments have already reported that employees and customers alike have tested positive for COVID-19. The question is what to do after getting that news.

Some temporarily closed, though it was up to their discretion just how long they closed for. Some only shut their doors for a few days, others for a week or two; still more decided to close down until they “felt it was safe” although of course that’s a very subjective measurement. Some restaurants are just closing down their dining room, or shortening their business hours, while still offering takeout and delivery options. Without guidelines put in place and enforced by the state, restaurants make these choices by themselves.

On top of unclear recommendations for what to do when someone tests positive for COVID-19, there’s also debate about what other safety measures they should take, if any. Many restaurants deep clean to ensure it’s sanitary when they start business again, but others don’t even notify the public about what’s going on: A handful have been accused of hiding when employees get sick. Others post about their closing procedures, and the reasons behind it, but just on Facebook or just on Instagram rather than advertising consistently across different social medias which is the best way to ensure all your customers see those updates.

Restaurants need to be clear and transparent about what they’re doing and why so that customers can make decisions about their own health and safety before dining out. When you shut down, emphasize the steps you’re taking to provide a clean environment as well as positive changes you’ll make to prevent something like this from happening again.

Increasing sanitation in your restaurant can be as easy as:

  • Checking everyone’s temperature when they come in, employees and customers alike. (Contactless thermometers are getting more popular with restaurants for this exact purpose.)
  • Provide paid sick leave for your employees so they don’t feel inclined to come in if they display symptoms of COVID-19 or any other illness.
  • Require masks and gloves for everybody. Provide single-use ones and somewhere to throw them out after use.
  • Have employees wash their hands at frequent, regular intervals.

Restaurants don’t have to tell the public anything, though. A wave of voluntary closures washed through restaurants in the Phoenix metropolitan area just over a month after the economy reopened, but they weren’t mandated by any particular agency. In fact, restaurants don’t have to notify the government of possible outbreaks at all.

The profits that restaurants were hoping would follow a reopened economy aren’t as lucrative as predicted either. Although they did experience a positive surge in income at first, the incubation period for the virus has run out. The recent uptick in COVID-19 cases means less people will leave voluntary quarantine and more people will be too scared to dine out. Once again, restaurants must decide whether to close or not; in the meantime, they still have to pay their bills and payroll whether people come to sit down with them or not.

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Arizona reacts

As of June 17th, Arizona reported 40,924 positive COVID-19 cases out of 450K tests and 1,239 confirmed deaths. This continues an upward trend in positivity rates, which measures the percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations rather than just pure numbers. That means that cases have actually increased; the statistics aren’t a result of more testing.

The governor has repeatedly stated that Arizona doesn’t have the hospital capacity or the equipment to handle an onslaught of new hospital admissions. Nonetheless, no policy changes have been made. Citizens are encouraged to wear masks and follow social distancing as best they can, but it’s still not required even in enclosed spaces. Still, state officials maintain that restaurants aren’t at fault and the spike in cases is due to people going back to work and their daily activities, not from dining out.

The CDC, Arizona Restaurant Association, Local First Arizona and more have created guidelines to keep people as safe as possible when they eat out. Mostly the advice consists of all the usual suggestions like masks, distance and single-use items. However the recommendations will likely stay non-mandatory: Since there’s no official legislation, neither law enforcement nor health inspectors have any obligation to report guideline infractions. More often, they simply bring the safety violation to the restaurant management’s attention for them to react as they see fit, usually employing education techniques over enforcement of the unofficial rules.

We still have no cure, no vaccine. Arizona Department of Health Services continues to keep an eye on the situation and update the public as more cases arise. For now, Arizonans should beware engaging in risk-taking behavior and restaurants should take health and safety measures seriously to avoid pushing Arizona any deeper into the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic than they’re already heading towards.

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