This summer Stacy Brosius, a third-grade public school teacher in Peoria, Ariz., painted a message for Republican Governor Doug Ducey on the rear window of her car: “We are not sacrificial lambs.”
With other teachers, she organized “motor marches” that spread across the state. Caravans of vehicles drove through neighborhoods, honking their horns and waving their hands to draw attention to the messages on their cars. The protesters even made Spotify playlists to blare through their speakers. The teachers were demanding that the state release science-based metrics on when and how in-person learning should resume. In August, the governor finally published reopening benchmarks. But for Brosius and others, it was too little, too late. School districts wouldn’t be forced to follow the guidelines, and forcing the state to even minimally respond to the Covid-19 pandemic had required a mass mobilization.
Arizonans are justifiably angry at those who refuse to wear masks or insist on having access to overpriced nightclub drinks. But most activists say blaming the selfish actions of individuals obscures the root cause of the state’s more than 5,000 Covid-19 deaths and more than 200,000 infections: a libertarian ideology that has long eroded Arizona’s public institutions. Ducey’s response to this crisis has left it to local networks, especially teachers and mutual aid groups, to organize and protect their communities—but without commonsense policies and state support, there’s only so much they can do.
The first case of the coronavirus in Arizona was confirmed in late January. It was just the fifth confirmed case in the country. About two months later, Ducey declared a public health emergency and introduced “proactive measures”—though his executive order notably did not address masks, social distancing, or limiting nonessential business activities. While he encouraged the public to follow the health department’s guidelines in his press conferences, he blocked local governments from requiring masks. It wasn’t till mid-June that he changed his mind and allowed cities to impose mask mandates.
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Arizona now has one of the highest Covid-19 per capita rates in the United States. Not coincidentally, it was also one of the last to close its businesses and one of the first to reopen them. Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, told me that when Ducey allowed the stay-at-home order to expire on May 15, the coronavirus situation went from “zero to 60.” She said the state became a “perfect case study” of a place that was unlikely “to have severe surges,” but then did not reopen businesses in an “incremental, slow phase process.” Instead, the number of confirmed Covid-19 infections started to skyrocket.
As Ducey was making these life-or-death policy decisions, many public health professionals said they were being ignored. On March 28, the Arizona director of emergency management, Wendy Smith-Reeve, announced her resignation because of the “lack of communication and transparency” behind the scenes and because “the directives from the Governor’s office have been to work completely outside of the State Emergency Response and Recovery Plan that the Governor acknowledged and directed the state enterprise to follow.” Just as the stay-at-home order was approaching its expiration date in May, local news outlets reported that the Arizona Department of Health Services told a 22-person team of public health experts working for free on predictive models of the virus’s spread to “pause” their work. This, according to Popescu, was one of the first indicators of the “politicization of public health.”
On June 17, Ducey allowed local governments to pass their own mask requirements. By then, about 1,500 Arizonans had died. Robert Washington, a cancer survivor and diabetic who went back to work as a casino security guard so that he could afford his insulin, died about two weeks after his first day back at work. Five of Ricardo Aguirre’s family members in the state died from Covid-19, and he, his wife, children, and brothers all tested positive. By the end of June, Kristin Urquiza lost her father, Mark, and her obituary to him has since gone viral and her message made its way to the Democratic National Convention stage: “His death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk.”
The governor’s office told me that it did not lift the prohibition against local governments’ passing mask mandates too late. Rather, the governor’s staff said, it was only appropriate after mayors, such as Tucson’s Regina Romero, implored him to do so. Within a month of rescinding the ban, about 90 percent of the state’s counties, cities, and towns had instituted some form of masking requirement.
But masks aren’t the only area where the state was behind the curve. When the first stay-at-home order expired in mid May, Arizona ranked 50 out of 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico for the number of tests completed with results per 1,000 people, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. By July, only 9 percent of the state’s adult ICU beds were available. Some coronavirus patients in Pima County, the county with the second-highest population density, had to be transferred to hospitals in Phoenix, San Diego, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas due to shortages of staffing, beds, or equipment.
Throughout the crisis, the urgency of the situation has rarely been reflected in the words or deeds of Arizona’s politicians. In mid-March, when the state was under an 8 pm curfew to convince people to stay home, four Republican lawmakers—Anthony Kern, David Gowan, Mark Finchem, and Sonny Borelli—posed for a picture in a restaurant, smiling and pointing up at a clock displaying the time, 8:15 pm. A month later, then–Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in Minnesota, sparking nationwide protests, and Scottsdale city councilman Guy Phillips used Floyd’s dying words of “I can’t breathe” at an anti-mask rally. Over Memorial Day weekend, people packed into Old Town Scottsdale clubs and bars, with no social distancing or masks. The family of a senior policy adviser to Ducey, Christina Corieri, owns six of these nightclubs. (The governor’s chief of staff, Daniel Scarpinato, told the Arizona Capitol Times that this was not a conflict of interest because Corieri was not involved in business reopening decisions.)
In July, a photo of Ducey attending a backyard party without social distancing or masks went viral, and the governor’s office later issued a statement with the information that the party took place in early June, not July, and was a high school graduation party, not a Fourth of July party. June or July—it doesn’t matter; the state wasn’t in any shape to be endorsing house parties. On the alleged date of this backyard party alone, June 6, the state had confirmed 866 new cases.
During a June 17 press briefing, Ducey said, “I know a lot of people that have contracted this [the coronavirus]. And I want to tell you where they contracted it: at graduation parties, at private gatherings in homes.” In the same press briefing, he made clear that he would not cancel the Trump rally scheduled for the following week.
“These are voluntary events,” he said to a reporter, “and people will voluntarily make the decision [to attend].”
“Is that good enough for you?” the reporter pressed. “To leave it up to them what to do?”
“We’re going to protect people’s rights to assemble in an election year,” he answered.
New coronavirus cases continued to grow in Maricopa County during the weeks following the rally. In the two weeks immediately after, the number of Covid-19 related deaths in the state nearly doubled. The Phoenix rally, organized by a group called Students for Trump and held in a megachurch, offered no temperature checks for its roughly 3,000 unmasked attendees.
In late September, Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane ended his city’s mask mandate, claiming that protecting public health “remains the civic responsibility of each person.”
Tom Volgy, a former Tucson mayor and a government and public policy professor at the University of Arizona, says it’s obvious that the state opened too quickly. Ducey, Volgy said, kept “consistency with the Trump administration to reprioritize economic concerns over health concerns.” Ducey’s second failure, he said, was not requiring masks statewide. That combination “created havoc.” Ducey’s initial decision to bar cities from requiring masks was an “approach that was classic Arizona—this was a state that’s rich in this libertarian tradition of trying to keep government out of the lives of citizens.”
When it comes to their response to Covid-19, Ducey and Trump have been in lockstep, both emphasizing the need for businesses to reopen. Ducey was the CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, an ice cream franchise, from 1995 to 2007. Unsurprisingly, Ducey and Trump, two businessmen turned politicians, seem to get along. Ducey set his ringtone to play “Hail to the Chief” when the White House calls, and when the two met on August 5, Trump told Ducey, “You’ve done a fantastic job. We’re very proud of you.”
Red for Ed Against Covid
Given Arizona’s libertarian streak, public educators in the state say they are used to politicians’ letting them down. In 2018, Arizona teachers donned red clothes, walked out of their classrooms, and protested in record numbers for higher pay and increased K-12 education funding in what became the Red for Ed movement. When the walkouts began, Ducey said the teachers were displaying “political theater,” and initially declined to meet with them.
“He made it very clear who he was when he ran for office and what his priorities were once he came into office,” Volgy said. “His primary interests were to reduce the size of government…to make the state ‘as friendly as possible’ for economic development, to minimize the cost of education in terms of taxpayer dollars, we knew all of that. There were no surprises.”
Except now, amid a pandemic, the stakes for teachers, school support staff, students, and students’ families are even higher.
Brosius teaches in the Deer Valley School District, about 30 miles north of Phoenix. While her school district decided to keep some students off campuses until late September, and stagger attendance when different grades return through mid-October, other schools returned to full-time, in-person classes on August 17. School leaders are not required to follow state health benchmarks; districts can decide when to hold in-person classes.
The governor’s office said it didn’t believe it was the role of the state to instruct schools when they should resume regular classes and that there should be flexibility within the reopening schedules. Queen Creek School District, outside of Phoenix, reopened to thousands of students before it met these health benchmarks, and dozens of teachers promptly resigned. A couple of weeks later, administrators from a Queen Creek high school sent parents an e-mail saying that their students may have been exposed to the virus, and a leaked e-mail between teachers in the district revealed that students can’t properly socially distance because “we all know that’s impossible.”
Among her group of teachers organizing the motor marches, Brosius said they were “floored and disappointed” by the lack of direction Ducey gave educators.
“He punted it so he didn’t have to take responsibility,” she said. “That is not fair to our teachers. That’s not fair to our students, and it’s not fair to parents, who need some kind of guidance as to what’s going to happen.”
Ducey’s decision to leave mandates up to municipalities rather than creating statewide ones is especially concerning to teachers, Brosius said, because they will be exposed not only to the possibly asymptomatic students in their cramped classrooms but also to all of the people those students interact with on a daily basis. Students, students’ families, teachers, and support staff, and anyone else under the school’s roof will suddenly be expanding their pool of human interaction 50-fold. Schools can quickly become central nodes in community outbreaks.
“We’re not being lazy,” she said. “I went on Monday to pick up things I needed, and sat in there and cried. We want to go back, but we need to do it in a way that is safe for every child and every instructor or support staff in that building.”
Instead, she added, it’s “welcome to Arizona, where teaching has become The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Survivor all wrapped in one.”
One Arizona teacher has already died from the coronavirus. Three elementary school teachers were teaching virtual summer school classes in the same classroom and all tested positive. One of them, Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, died, even though they socially distanced, wore masks, and used hand sanitizer while in the room. Byrd had spent nearly 40 years in the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District.
“I think that educators are nervous and anxious, because they can trust their state government to not provide them with the resources that they need,” Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association union, told me. “We have decades of proof of that in our schools. We already had overcrowded classrooms; we already had an underfunded system; and now we have to go out and find more safety equipment.”
Public schools in Arizona are chronically underfunded, and consistently rank as one of the lowest-paying states for teachers in the country. Many teachers spend hundreds of their own dollars on supplies every year. While the Red for Ed protests against education funding cuts secured a 20 percent pay raise by 2020 for some—though not all—teachers, Ducey did not bend on the other demands for a sustainable revenue source for public schools, raises for noninstructional school staff, or the recovery of pre-recession education funding.
“Teachers can always make do—I mean they don’t want to—in a classroom that’s falling apart,” Brosius said. “I remember seeing pictures of rooms with leaks and 20-year-old textbooks. We are able to pivot… We can research, we can find things, but we can’t do that in this situation. We don’t have anything to stop it, because Covid’s in charge, not us.”
The coronavirus has also introduced new dilemmas. Some classrooms don’t have any windows, and even when they do, the hot desert climate will sometimes prevent teachers from opening them. In Arizona, schools are also not required to employ a school nurse.
In August, hundreds of people gathered—mostly unmasked—at the Capitol in Phoenix to demand schools resume in-person learning despite warnings from public health officials. One parent who spoke to ABC 15 echoed Ducey’s rhetoric, saying, “We need to have a choice.”
Volgy told me this “libertarian approach about letting each individual decide,” is especially dangerous during a pandemic: “It’s: If you do choose not to do this, I will be hurt.”
Some Arizona students and teachers are speaking out. A video made by students circulated on Twitter in July, featuring students and one teacher in Glendale arguing that the reopening decisions shouldn’t be left up to school districts, but should be addressed with a statewide plan. In it, teacher Elise Villescaz says, “I will not stand by silently to watch Arizona become some kind of national experiment. If I die from Covid, please politicize my death.”
Without Government, Mutual Aid
Indigenous communities are also unsurprised by the state’s response to the pandemic, and have been organizing mutual aid collectives to support each other in ways that they’ve always known the government won’t. The Desert Indigenous Collective has been providing masks, groceries, medicines, and other necessities to about 15 families per month in the Phoenix area, or approximately 50 to 80 people, according to Zach Cooper, one of the collective members. Native Americans have been disproportionately infected and killed from this virus, and especially in the Navajo Nation, which was at one point one of the hardest-hit communities in the country.
“It’s racialized capitalism that we live under,” Ashley Claw, another collective member, said. “Now we are seeing all of the pitfalls of our federal system and of our local state governance. You’re seeing all the problems crop up because they have always been there, but there hasn’t been a national consciousness raised around those issues.”
When it comes to the state leadership under Ducey, Cooper and Claw say the problems lie much deeper than just a single man’s actions.
“It’s pretty unsurprising…just looking back to that fundamental relationship that the United States has continuously failed on the part of Native people just makes me one, unsurprised, and two, realize that we have a lot of work to do,” Cooper said.
Mutual aid collectives like Desert Indigenous Collective will continue for as long as Native communities keep getting “the short end of the stick,” Claw said. Like Cooper, she said the situation in Arizona is not due to any single politician, but rather, to our governing and economic structures that have never been equal.
The Tucson Mutual Aid collective also mobilized once the coronavirus hit. One of the projects Megan Cox has been working on is getting hand sanitizer to those experiencing homelessness in the city. Similar to the Desert Indigenous Collective members, Cox said there are certain parts of the community that see the failure of the state government and of the governor to support everyone in need “as a given.”
Ducey, she said, “is clearly steeped in Republican politics and doesn’t really care much about us. Every gesture that he’s made has been ineffective at best.”
These collective members’ sentiments seem to be increasingly shared by many others in the state. Ducey had the lowest approval rating for his response to the coronavirus than any other governor in the country, according to a July poll by the Covid-19 Consortium, a collaboration between several universities. In early May, this rating was 57 percent, but dropped to 32 percent by late June.
“There has been an incredible deterioration of trust and confidence in the state as being competent,” Volgy said. “This ‘libertarian tradition’ has been supplemented by the public wanting competent government, and that competent government appears to have disappeared around this coronavirus.”
Ducey is serving his second term and will not be eligible to run in 2022, but even without the threat of his reelection, the left has been gaining ground in Arizona, despite the national perception of the state as a “Republican stronghold.” This shift is in part fueled by both the suburbs’ starting to defect away from the Republican Party and the number of Latinx voters who are slowly but surely rising. Similar to national trends, students and young voters in Arizona have also been a crucial force behind efforts to make the state more progressive.
“People are saying we need a change,” Volgy said. “We want government when it’s needed to function effectively.”