PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey lifted capacity restrictions at gyms, restaurants and other businesses Friday, citing lower COVID-19 cases and increased vaccination as he eases up on the pandemic restrictions that have upended life for nearly a year.
His order does not change mask mandates imposed by cities and counties, which remain in effect across most of the state.
The decision to lift capacity restrictions applies to gyms, restaurants, theaters, water parks, bowling alleys and bars providing dine-in services.
Ducey again ignored the guidance issued by his own administration last year, which says those businesses should be closed altogether under the current “substantial” level of virus spread across most of Arizona.
But he took a more cautious stance than his fellow Republican governors in Mississippi and Texas, who this week rescinded their capacity restrictions and mask mandates entirely in a swift return to normal. Arizona has not had a statewide mask mandate.
“Today’s announcement is a measured approach; we are not in the clear yet,” Ducey said in a statement. “We need to continue practicing personal responsibility. Wear a mask. Social distance. Stay home when you’re sick and wash your hands frequently.”
Dr. Cara Christ, the state Department of Health Services director, said some businesses will now be able to serve more people but still maintain the recommended distance of 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. There will still be fewer people than normal in venues such as movie theaters and stadiums, she added.
She also said state and local officials will still be investigating any reports of businesses not complying with physical distancing.
“If we got a complaint that they weren’t, our surveyors would go out and potentially measure between tables,” Christ said in a virtual media briefing. “If they were seating every other table and every other table had been marked off, then visually they would know that it was greater than 6 feet. It’s going to depend on the establishment and how they’re implementing those protocols.”
The move was met with opposition from most of the state's big hospital chains, including Banner, Dignity, HonorHealth, Tenet and Northern Arizona Healthcare.
“Now is not the time to relax our mitigation efforts; we must stay the course to ensure that our vaccination efforts can outpace the spread of the virus,” the Health System Alliance of Arizona said in a statement.
Sal DiCiccio, a conservative member of the Phoenix City Council, thanked Ducey “for opening up Arizona."
“Businesses have been hurting greatly and now there will be no restrictions on the number of people,” DiCiccio wrote on Twitter. “This is a major win towards full recovery.”
Until Friday, gyms were required to operate at 25% of their typical capacity while restaurants, movie theaters and water parks could operate at up to 50%.
Ducey's order lifts those restrictions but maintains other requirements, including mask requirements while not eating and social distancing between parties.
Professional sports teams can play with state-approved plans for safety protocols and physical distancing. The Cactus League and leaders of cities with stadiums in January asked Major League Baseball to delay spring training. COVID-19 case counts have dropped since then, and games began last week with limited fans.
Arizona has passed the 2 million mark for COVID-19 vaccine doses administered to 1.3 million people, including 711,074 people who have received two doses, the Department of Health Services said Friday.
“This is certainly a milestone, but there is plenty of work ahead and millions more Arizonans in need of vaccination,” Christ said.
Arizona on Friday reported 84 coronavirus deaths along with 2,276 additional confirmed cases. Arizona’s seven-day rolling average of daily new cases was about 1,170 as of Thursday, down about 400 from two weeks earlier, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project. The rolling average of daily deaths dropped from nearly 88 to 62 during the same period.
The latest figures raised the state's pandemic totals to 823,384 known cases and 16,269 deaths.
The number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the state continued to decrease, with 1,043 inpatient beds occupied as of Thursday, the state's coronavirus dashboard showed. Arizona's pandemic high was 5,082 hospitalizations on Jan. 11.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport and Terry Tang contributed to this report.