Partygoers have been packing Arizona bars. Now the state is a coronavirus hot spot
In Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona, Riot House's restaurant and nightclub is full of guests who don't distance themselves socially or wear masks. (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)
As with almost every other weekend in the past month, the bars and nightclubs in downtown Scottsdale were packed on Friday nights.
Dance floors were clogged. Lines stretched for blocks. And almost no one wore masks or gloves.
When Governor Doug Ducey lifted Arizona's order to stay at home on May 15, giving green light to restarting much of the state economy, he said residents had the right and responsibility to assess the risks associated with the novel corona virus and to act accordingly.
"What an Arizonan decides is up to you," he said.
Governor Doug Ducey speaks about protests and COVID-19 on June 4 at the Arizona Commerce Authority conference center in Phoenix. (Sean Logan / Associated Press)
Now that confirmed cases of COVID-19 appear here and make Arizona a national hot spot for new infections, it is clear that many residents have chosen to live as normal again as if nothing had changed.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the thriving bar and nightclub scene in the state.
"When I see crowded nightclubs, I'm deeply concerned," said Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who is one of a growing number of state officials in the state and is asking Ducey to better regulate the industry.
"It sends this message that we went through this - that we defeated it."
For a while, Arizona seemed to have contained the virus well.
While an outbreak of the Navajo nation in the northeast corner of Arizona triggered an alarm, the state as a whole reported a general drop in new corona virus cases last month.
This trend has reversed in the past few weeks.
The state recorded 7,121 new cases between May 31 and June 6 - an increase of 54% from the previous week and the largest increase from week to week since the pandemic started.
Arizona has also seen an increase in hospitalization: 1,400 people were hospitalized on Friday, up from 755 a month earlier. According to the Department of Health, the capacity of the state's intensive care unit has exceeded 80%.
Arizona is one of 22 states in which the number of new cases every day has increased. According to health experts, this is likely due to the end of home stay orders.
While officials in some locations, including New York and Texas, have responded by threatening to block again, Ducey is not considering additional closures and says Arizona must stay on course.
"This virus is not going to go away," he said at a press conference last week. "We have to learn to live with this virus."
Ducey suggested that the recent surge in new cases is due to further testing.
However, data shows that the percentage of positive tests has risen sharply, from 5% in May to 13% in recent days.
"It's very alarming," said Will Humble, general manager of Arizona Public Health Assn. and former state health director under Republican governor Jan Brewer. "It wastes the sacrifices that people have made."
Humble believes that some adjustments, such as the obligation for Arizona residents to wear masks in public spaces, could help the state contain the pandemic. Another helpful change is to better control activities in bars and clubs, including limiting capacity.
"There are many layers of things we need to do to slow the spread of the virus, and that's one of them," he said.
Night clubs are particularly incompatible with social distancing. People go to bars for social interaction. Add alcohol to the mixture and even the best of intentions can go out the window.
"Drunk people are not acting responsibly," said Sean Badger, who owns the recently reopened Phoenix Bar Smith.
He believes the state allowed bars and clubs to open too soon, but felt compelled to resume business if others did.
"We'll open tomorrow ... if you don't like it, call the governor's office," he wrote on his bar's Facebook page. "He should have protected us all, but we'll go ahead instead."
Arizona never technically gave bars and clubs the green light to reopen.
Customers cheer when Debbie Thompson, owner of Horseshoe Cafe in Wickenburg, tells them on May 1 that she's violating Arizona's order to stay at home by allowing guests to dine in her restaurant.
But after Ducey allowed the restaurants to dine indoors again on May 15, some bars found a loophole. Many started offering foods like fries, which they said qualified them as restaurants.
Soon, pictures of bars full of partygoers were circulating on social media, and visitors from other states with stricter social distance guidelines, including California, poured in.
In a video, boxer Floyd Mayweather is shown in the Scottsdale International Boutique Nightclub in an amount that only offers standing room.
The Mayor of Scottsdale, Jim Lane, was angry on Twitter, saying that the fact that people flocked to bars is "worrying" and shows "a real lack of common sense and civic responsibility".
He met with bar owners, many of whom erected plastic dividers between tables to stop the virus from spreading. Lane, a Republican, said the patrons were also responsible.
"We like to treat our citizens as adults and ask for their cooperation," he said.
Other local leaders say they would like to do more to regulate the industry, but can't because of an order from Ducey that limits mayors' ability to set stricter guidelines for social distancing than at the state level.
"I'm frustrated that cities have been anticipated," said Gallego, the Mayor of Phoenix, who is a Democrat.
In Maricopa County, where Phoenix and Scottsdale are located, 27% of cumulative coronavirus infections have occurred in the past week, she said.
"What we're doing at the state level isn't working right now."
She said she understood why people like to go to bars after months of staying at home.
Even for those who fear that it is too early to be in public places, the appeal of good music and cold drinks can be too great. The 28-year-old Lexie Palermo has been religious about social distancing for months. On Friday, she met some friends for dinner and then planned to go home for another quiet night. Instead, the group was drawn to Bevvy, one of two dozen bars in downtown Scottsdale.
When she danced and drank icy Moscow mules, Palermo felt the stab of guilt. "Bad call," she said. "It's the only thing I swore I would never do."
Others weren't ashamed.
"If you are at risk or are old or sick, you have to stay at home," said Austin, a young man who identified himself as a hedge fund manager and refused to give his last name.
"If you are healthy and young, you have to spend money out here to help the economy."
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