Arizona Has Lost Control of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Arizona governor Doug Ducey allowed pressure from Donald Trump and business leaders in the state to pressure him into prematurely reopening the state. Now the state is suffering the worst coronavirus numbers in the entire world.

US president Donald Trump talks to Arizona governor Doug Ducey during a working lunch with governors on “workforce freedom and mobility” at the White House on June 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty

Since Arizona’s premature reopening on May 15, the state has maintained occupancy of around 90 percent of intensive care beds, received the ominous distinction of being the first in the nation to have implemented “crisis care” standards in hospitals, requested refrigerated trucks to handle possible morgue overflow, and led the entire world in new coronavirus cases per million residents.

The explosion of cases within the state — which, as per usual in the United States, has impacted low-income communities, African Americans, indigenous people, and Latinos the hardest — is due to Arizona Republican governor Doug Ducey’s decision to follow President Donald Trump in prioritizing industry and free market ideals above human lives.

On April 29, Ducey extended the state’s stay-at-home order to May 15. His intention was to “turn up the light” on Arizona’s economy with a “gradual and phased in” approach. But four days later and only hours before Trump was set to arrive in Arizona for a visit to the Honeywell manufacturing facility, the governor accelerated his reopening plans. Barber shops and nail salons were given an immediate green light, with restaurants, bars, and gyms soon to follow.

The reopening came with no mask mandate and no tangible enforcement plan. Due to a strict March 30 executive order that Ducey signed, local leaders were also restricted from implementing regulations against state law.

“I want to encourage people to get out and about, to take a loved one to dinner, to go retail shopping,” Ducey said on the local radio station KTAR.

By June, Arizona was reporting more than triple the national average of coronavirus cases per 100,000, and over 30 percent more than the second worst state in the country, Florida. The state’s largest county, Maricopa County, was recording more than two thousand cases a day, a number that eclipses New York City boroughs even on their worst days. By the end of the month, experts had declared that “Arizona has lost control of the epidemic.”

Industry First

What changed the governor’s mind in just five days, leading to this loss of control of coronavirus?

The numbers hadn’t budged — the state’s health data did not show the fourteen-day decline recommended by the federal government. Soon after his announcement, Ducey suspended the work of academic professionals from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, whose projections warned of the devastating results for reopening too soon. With only around 15 percent of Arizonans supporting an immediate reopening at the time, it was not public pressure that caused the change either.

The only constituents of Ducey’s that asked for the reopening were the state’s capitalists. In an April 28 column in AZ Central, the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Glenn Hamer, laid out his guidelines for reopening. His proposal was simple: be flexible with safety guidelines and protect businesses by reducing “job creators’ exposure to legal liability,” and by delaying “sales tax remittances and property tax payments.”

Ducey did just that. Within days of reopening, pictures of packed bars and nightclubs began appearing online. When asked about the lack of enforcement, Ducey said he was “grateful to [the police], that they have taken the posture and a lighter touch of educating and communicating with people.” Those were same police Ducey thanked again after they pepper sprayed and violently attacked protestors only weeks later when protests erupted over the police murder of George Floyd.

Even after the governor’s decision led to what he himself described as a “brutal June,” he has shown his unwavering commitment to putting industry first during the pandemic. On July 21, Ducey became one of the twenty-two Republican governors to sign a letter to congressional leaders asking for a quicker reopening with “common sense” liability protections for businesses.

“To accelerate reopening our economies as quickly and as safely as possible, we must allow citizens to get back to their livelihoods and make a living for their families without the threat of frivolous lawsuits,” the letter reads, disregarding the frightening trends in national coronavirus cases and deaths to advocate for an industry-first approach to reopening.

No Plan Going Forward

The problem Arizonans now face is a lack of federal action and a state government with no intention of putting human lives ahead of free-market ideals. As Trump and education secretary Betsy DeVos intensify their demand that schools reopen in the fall, Ducey has followed directly behind. Currently, Arizona schools are set to return in person on August 17, despite the continued record-breaking rise in COVID-related deaths.

“When you look at the data and the actions of our decision makers, August 17 is never going to happen,” Rebecca Garelli told me. Garelli is a science educator in the state and cofounder of Arizona Educators United, the organization that led tens of thousands of teachers into the streets during the 2018 Arizona teachers’ strike. With Arizona already ranked near last in per-pupil spending and suffering from a massive teacher shortage, the state’s return to classrooms in mid-August is incomprehensible.

“As we watch Trump hold roundtables with folks from the Tea Party telling us they demand we go back for the good of the economy, this is definitely influencing the governor,” she said.

The decision to reopen, with substantive relief payments still nowhere to be found in Arizona or the rest of the country, puts teachers in a position where they either go to work or let unpaid bills pile up — which isn’t really a choice at all. And although teachers within the state want nothing more than to be in the classroom with their students, the reality of going back to school in a global coronavirus hotspot frightens them to the core.

“Teachers are terrified,” says Garelli. “They’re afraid for their health, they’re afraid that they’re going to be forced into a position they have no choice over, that nobody is listening to their voices, and that they may bring it home to their families.”

Already, Arizona has lost one teacher to the virus, and that wasn’t even with students in the classroom. Forcing teachers and students back into cramped classrooms in the fall would only mean further coronavirus deaths in the state. Clearly, this is an outcome Trump and Ducey are willing to accept.

Renters in Arizona are also facing a crisis. When the increased unemployment benefits from the CARES Act set to expire on July 31, the nearly one million Arizonans collecting unemployment will be receiving only $240 per week, nowhere near enough to afford food and rent in the state. Without immediate actions from Congress or the state to expand unemployment, renters without any emergency funds will be forced to find work regardless of health concerns.

The situation for Arizona renters was already abysmal. In the state’s capital, Phoenix, rent increased faster in the last quarter of 2019 than in any city in the nation. “Tucson was recently listed as having one of the top twenty-five highest eviction rates in the country,” according to Pima County constable Kristen Randall, “so we already knew we had a problem.”

The coronavirus pandemic has intensified that reality for Arizonans.

“The state had an extremely inadequate $5 million allocated to rental assistance, and only 20 percent of that has been disbursed,” Randall said of the state’s response to the crisis. The bulk of the promised $5 million, which was allocated in March as part of the Rental Eviction Prevention Assistance program, is still in the bank. As of mid-July, only $1.1 million has been distributed.

The solution, according to Randall, is “time, money, and to cut the red tape”: “time” meaning an extension on the eviction moratorium originally set to end July 23, “money” meaning providing enough assistance to keep the levels of unpaid rents down, and “cutting the red tape” meaning actually allowing the promised money to make it to renters.

The first step came on July 16, when Ducey extended the moratorium on evictions to October 31. But, as Randall noted, “none of these work unless we get all three.” With what we know about the governor’s last promised $5 million, Arizonans will have to see if the $650,000 toward Community Action Agencies and $5 million toward a foreclosure prevention program actually make it to the community.

Pandemic in a Battleground State

The fact that Arizona is a battleground state in the midst of an election year has also played a role in its coronavirus response. On a record-breaking day for coronavirus cases in the state, Trump held a three-thousand-person Students for Trump convention at the Dream City Church in Phoenix. Almost none of those in attendance wore masks, possibly relying on the reassurances of senior pastors, who dubiously claimed that the church had installed air purifiers that “kill 99.9 percent of COVID in ten minutes.”

The reason for Trump’s visit is obvious: Republicans are beginning to feel nervous in the state. Long recognized as a deeply red state, grassroots organizing has driven massive changes in the political landscape.

“It’s not the moderate state that so many in the mainstream perceive us to be,” says Brianna Westbrook, an at-large officer for the Phoenix Democratic Socialists of America and former Bernie Sanders surrogate. “Over the last couple years, there has been a progressive shift in Arizona politics,” which she says is due to “rapidly expanding grassroots organizing.”

Groups like Puente Human Rights Movement and Poder in Action have been active throughout the pandemic, organizing against the conditions inside Arizona detention centers, where hundreds of migrants have already tested positive for COVID-19. Unions like UNITE HERE and organizations like Central Arizonans For a Sustainable Economy have been fighting for economic justice in the state and have actually begun to turn the political tides of a longtime bastion of reactionary politics.

Still, the immediate future looks terrifying in Arizona. While Ducey has taken up a somber and sympathetic tone since the state’s botched reopening, he has doubled down on his commitment to an industry-first approach.

“I know most of the folks in here that have worked with me over the last six years know my love of free enterprise, free markets, and Adam Smith,” Ducey reminded Arizonans in a July 9 press conference. But his determination to keep the economy running while working-class Arizonans suffer and even die should have been reminder enough.

What Arizonans need is decisive action to mitigate the spread of coronavirus and protect the state’s most vulnerable. For Governor Ducey, that would mean standing up to Trump and the desires of industry leaders. Unfortunately, Ducey doesn’t seem to have the heart or the backbone to do either.