PHOENIX — Arizonans waiting to get back into exercise routines during the COVID-19 pandemic may not have to wait much longer.
And they also could go to theaters and even to some bars — assuming those establishments operate more like restaurants.
Data from the state Department of Health Services shows that businesses in Cochise, Coconino, Greenlee, La Paz and Yavapai counties already can reopen providing they follow certain health protocols. That means everything from physical distancing and mask requirements to enhanced cleaning procedures.
There's a limit of 25 percent capacity for gyms, and 50 percent for movie theaters and bars.
But an analysis of statistics by Capitol Media Services shows that Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties are just one benchmark shy of hitting the numbers to reopen. That could happen Thursday when the latest figures are released.
What all that means is all the legal wrangling over whether the state is being arbitrary with who opens and who cannot could disappear for much of the state.
One locally owned chain, however, is not waiting for the new numbers on Thursday to see whether it can legally allow customers. Mountainside Fitness announced Tuesday it intends to reopen at 4:30 a.m. that morning — with or without the state's blessing and regardless of whether the health department finds that conditions in Maricopa County have reached the "moderate'' level.
Mountainside CEO Tom Hatten, who waged his own court battle with the health department, said he has provided "third-party certification ... supported by medical professionals'' that the company's 18 facilities are safe to reopen, regardless of whether the state believes the level of infection in Maricopa County has reached acceptable levels. Yet despite that, the Department of Health Services has so far denied his request to reopen.
He isn't alone. The latest figures from the health department show the agency has denied 99 requests by gyms and fitness centers to reopen; another 90 locations have been given the go-ahead.
But Hatten isn't going to wait, accusing the state of "subjective enforcement.''
If he follows through, that puts the burden on the health department to decide what to do next.
Health department spokesman Steve Elliott said his agency continues to work with businesses willing to implement additional measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
"Our goal is for businesses to reopen in a way that protects the safety of customers and employees,'' he said.
Hattten has had some luck in court.
He got Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomason to order the state to provide a "roadmap'' of sorts to show when it is safe for various kinds of businesses to reopen automatically — and under what conditions — as well as an appeals process for those who seek a waiver.
It is that roadmap that will allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25 percent capacity if individual counties to pass a three-part test.
First, there have to be two weeks where there are fewer than 100 cases for every 100,000 residents. It also requires that fewer than 10 percent of tests for the virus come back positive for two weeks straight.
Finally, fewer than 10 percent of people showing up at hospitals have COVID-like symptoms.
All 15 counties meet the last category, with five hitting the other two benchmarks. What's left now is to see when the other 10 counties can reach the same levels.
Nothing that's happening in any of the counties will lead to the reopening of bars and nightclubs, at least not the way they used to operate with dancing, standing around and chatting or even hanging around the pool tables.
The standards set by the health department prohibit these establishments from reopening with those practices until all three benchmarks in a county reach what the state considers "minimal'' levels. That means fewer than 10 cases per 100,000, fewer than 5 percent of test results coming back positive, and fewer than 5 percent of hospital visits by patients with COVID-like symptoms.
No county is close.
There is a way around that, though.
They will be allowed to open in any county in which the levels of infection have reached just the moderate standard, the same one that will allow gyms and fitness centers to reopen at 25 percent capacity.
They would have to convert to what the health department calls "restaurant service.''
That doesn't mean no alcohol. What it does means is customers escorted to tables, groups limited to no more than 10, no standing or mingling, and limited waiting areas.
And forget dancing.
Under those conditions, the facility could have up to 50 percent occupancy.
Schools and in-person instruction present a different set of issues.
They use the same benchmarks for number of cases at fewer than 100 per 100,000 residents and that 10 percent standard for hospital visits. But it requires that the percent of tests for the virus turning up positive is below 7 percent for two weeks — not 10 percent like for business.
So far only Apache and Yavapai County qualify.