Tempe, ARIZONA — Mill Avenue, a bar crawl hot spot for locals and Arizona State University students, has come back to life in recent weeks except for one fixture: the Mill Cue Club.
That changes on Friday. Dennis Alexander is preparing to reopen his night club Friday for the first time in three months. Like many businesses, Mill Cue Club is taking new precautions, including limiting capacity, requiring staff to wear masks and sanitizing pool cues and balls and darts after they’ve been used.
But he’ll also be keeping close watch on the latest data.
“The spikes within the state are obviously a concern, not so much the increase in cases, because, of course, testing has exploded,” Alexander said. “But we are watching hospitalizations and the demographics of those closely.”
Plenty of other Arizonans are also watching the numbers. The state has seen a 178 percent surge in coronavirus cases in the past two weeks, making it one of a handful of states that are now seen as having the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,246 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday and 41 deaths.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey lifted the state’s stay-at-home order May 15, and business owners have been figuring out how they can comply with the rules to restart their businesses.
Since then, life has started to return to the way it was before the coronavirus. Shopping malls are now open and Arizonans are happy to wait in line outside stores, which are limiting their capacity.
While restaurants are supposed to enforce social distancing, regulars at some hot spots have been crowding their favorite bars at happy hour. The bartenders and servers wearing masks are the only indicators that times have changed.
Some of that nightlife has drawn national scrutiny. Last month, boxer Floyd Mayweather was spotted in a video posted by TMZ partying in the International Boutique Nightclub in Scottsdale, Arizona. International Boutique did not immediately return a request for comment.
Some business owners say they feel conflicted about operating in the midst of the pandemic and with what they describe as unclear guidance.
“We have been there for 25 years and have seen a lot, so we weren’t in any rush before we had a good handle on how we could do that safely,” Alexander said. “Sometimes between the state and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], it feels like there has been conflicting information.”
Bar Smith, a nightclub in Phoenix, reopened after Memorial Day weekend at a reduced capacity, but owner Sean Badger isn’t entirely thrilled about it.
“I am in business begrudgingly at this moment. It has been weird,” Badger, who also DJs on the roof of his bar, said.
When Ducey opened up the state, Badger said the pressure returned to get back on schedule paying bills, such as rent and utilities. Badger doesn’t fault his landlord, who he knows relies on his rent money.
“I am just trying to make enough money to keep my landlord from evicting me. I’m not making a profit,” he said. “It feels s----- to risk my life to go try and make some money.”
At the same time, he understands and appreciates why people feel the need to go out and socialize. Some people also show up with masks, Badger said, but after having a few drinks or seeing a friend, they can’t help but get close to others.
“These are people who are still going to house parties and pool parties. If they weren’t coming to me, they’d be going somewhere else,” he said. “They want to live their life.”
On Wednesday, Ducey, who has been criticized for reopening the state too early and for not issuing a statewide mask policy, said he would allow mayors to make a decision for their cities.
The Phoenix City Council voted 7-2 on Friday to require people to wear face coverings in public. Mayor Kate Gallego has been encouraging residents to wear masks, even tweeting a selfie of herself wearing a covering. Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson are among the cities that will require people to wear masks in public, with some exceptions such as when they’re eating or drinking. However, it’s unclear how enforceable those mandates will be in nightclubs where booze flows freely and people are busy on the dance floor.
While some businesses, such as grocery stores, have featured signs at their entrances throughout the pandemic detailing CDC guidelines and encouraging the use of masks, new reminders began cropping up this week as cases in Arizona continue to spike.
At Einstein Bros. Bagels in Tempe, new signs were placed on the entrance at the start of the week encouraging customers to wear masks. At the register, customers are encouraged to place their payment in a plastic basket, that way they don’t have to hand it directly to a cashier. The dining room is closed, but people are still welcome to eat at outside tables.
Karen Peña, who was at Einstein’s on Thursday morning, said she started wearing a mask because she is concerned about Arizona’s curve rising.
“I’ve noticed a real change in the past week as the numbers have gotten worse,” she said. “Right now, it seems to be about 50-50 wherever I go, but I feel like people are starting to get the message.”
Sarah Miranda, who lives in Phoenix, said she wishes more people would wear masks. She’s been very careful about where she goes because she wants to protect her 75-year-old grandmother.
“When I go out in public, I do see people not wearing masks and I think it is dangerous and selfish for these folks to not do their part to flatten the curve,” she said.
The issue of reopening has created a difficult line to walk for club owners and their staff in a state that — ready or not — is roaring back to life, but has also become a coronavirus hot spot.
“I don’t want people dying of broken spirits any more than the disease,” Badger said. “Even if they just pop in for 30 minutes and listen to some music, it might be enough to get them through the next few weeks.”
Some businesses have decided it's not worth trying to remain open as coronavirus cases surge. On Friday, Apple announced it will temporarily close six of its stores in the state.