In a release accompanying an executive order on Thursday, Ducey’s office explained that the decision to implement the changes was based on several “key data points.”
Ducey cited 10 weeks of declining cases of the coronavirus, hospitalization numbers at their lowest point since the beginning of October; President Biden’s pledge that every American would be able to receive the vaccine by May 1; the opening of vaccine appointments to all Arizonans aged 16 years old or older; a March 17 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found the Grand Canyon State had the third-highest vaccination coverage for high-vulnerability counties; and reaching the milestone of more than three million doses administered.
“We are over 3 million doses. President Biden and Vice President Harris have looked at the way we distribute vaccines here and have called us a national model,” C.J. Karamargin, Ducey’s communications director, told Fox News on Friday.
“Based on the efficient, effective way to get the vaccine into the arms of every Arizonan who wants it, we are confident we’re on the right path here. This is the light at the end of the tunnel, and we are speeding toward it,” he said.
On Thursday, when the news was announced, Arizona health officials reported 138 new cases ‒ the smallest daily increase reported in more than six months ‒ and 32 deaths.
The state’s seven-day average for both cases and deaths has also fallen since the beginning of the year and the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported its seven-day moving average of percent positives at 1.87% as of Friday morning.
On Friday, the Health Department reported 571 new cases and 24 deaths.
Overall, Johns Hopkins tallies 837,987 confirmed cases and 16,874 deaths thus far.
In this Jan. 12, 2021, file photo, several tents are set up so people who have registered can get their COVID-19 vaccinations as they drive-thru the parking lot of the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Notably, Arizona never fully shut down like California or New York, nor did Ducey establish a statewide mask mandate. Case spikes in December and January forced him to expand health and safety requirements for public events and place penalties on businesses that repeatedly disregard safety procedures.
While some were frustrated by the extent of Ducey’s mitigation efforts, February was a turning point as more than 1 million residents received vaccine shots.
Now, around a quarter of Arizona’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination; about 16% are fully inoculated.
“As we’ve said all along, distribution of the vaccine is our best path to getting back to normal, and I want to thank the millions of Arizonans who have rolled up their sleeves to make the distribution and uptake so successful,” Ducey said in the release.
“In Arizona, we never did a shutdown, so it’s impossible to have a grand reopening. Instead, we are continuing to take reasonable, safe and sensible steps. The measures put in place last summer allowed Arizona to fight back COVID-19,” he added. “I want to thank the local leaders who supported these efforts with their own measures, and the businesses who implemented them. Today, we are in a different spot, and we are also a lot smarter.”
“I’m confident Arizona’s businesses and citizens will continue to practice the fundamentals and act responsibly as we gradually get back to normal,” Ducey concluded.
Events with more than 50 people will no longer need the approval of local governments, though they are advised to follow CDC guidance.
Lastly, local mask mandates ‒ not affecting the mask mandate at K-12 schools ‒ will be “phased out.”
“Some local governments have implemented ‘mandates,’ however, they have rarely, if ever, been enforced,” the release said. “Under this latest action, those local mandates will be phased out. Mask usage is still encouraged, especially in groups that are not vaccinated.”
That said, Tucson’s Democratic Mayor Regina Romero has already said she has no intention of lifting her city’s mask mandate and critics argue relaxing guidelines now could counteract any progress in decreasing COVID-19 transmission as mutations spread around the country.
“It is unfortunate that Gov. Ducey is caving to political pressure from the far right instead of following the science and doing what’s best for Arizonans,” Romero said in a statement.
Democratic Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego tweeted Thursday that Ducey’s announcement “directly contradicts the best scientists on the field.”
“The governor clearly cares a lot less about the people of Arizona than his political future,” she said.
Democratic state Rep. Cesar Chavez, also from the state’s capital, warned that relaxing restrictions “could counteract the great results we have had in the past weeks. I want normalcy but I also want herd immunity from #COVID19.”
Chavez’s position is supported by health officials, according to The Arizona Republic, which reported Thursday that both the Arizona Medical Association and Health System Alliance of Arizona said that the state should not yet “let up” or “become complacent” while the virus continues to spread and take lives.
In contrast, some local leaders said they would be lifting their mandates in accordance with Ducey’s order — like in Maricopa County and Chandler.
Others were not as certain, and Tempe Mayor Corey Woods told the Republic he planned to meet with council members to discuss how best to proceed.
Mesa’s Republican mayor, John Giles, said his city would continue to require masks just in city buildings.
Other Arizona Republicans, like GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward, largely praised Ducey’s decision.
“Arizona is finally free!” she tweeted on Thursday.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, called Ducey’s move “the right and responsible decision.”
“Better late then never,” Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, tweeted Thursday. “To all the (Arizonans) who have suffered so much during this year long shutdown we’re getting there slowly, but surely.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.