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Should Arizona Schools, Libraries, Restaurants Reopen?

Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine
Kathy Ritchie/KJZZ
editorial | staff
Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine

The director of Maricopa County’s disease control division told the Phoenix City Council she would rather keep some facilities open.

During a Phoenix council policy session Monday, Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine was asked about closing schools,  libraries, dine-in restaurants and bars to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Her response surprised some people.

“I wasn’t consulted before they were closed. I don’t know whether it was right or wrong. I know that I would not have recommended closing them,” she said.

Sunenshine said she would try to minimize the spread and maximize the distance but keep facilities open because “I do think that this is going to be a long haul.”

If possible, Sunenshine said, it’s better to have the libraries open and only let every other computer be in use at a time and post signs that chairs need to be 6 feet apart.

“I know it’s hard, but it’s a lot harder to lose your livelihood than it is to have tables in a restaurant stay 6 feet apart and to have hand sanitizer at a door when people walk in.” she said.

Sunenshine did not downplay the seriousness of the outbreak while stressing the need to evaluate the full cost to society from closing so many facilities.

“And I think that if enough people lose their jobs and lose access to food and learning and their livelihoods that you’re doing more harm than you are by having a minor illness,” she said. “I know people don’t like to hear that but I do public health for a living and health is not just the absence of disease, it’s being able to maintain food and nutrition and sometimes exercise and some socialization.”

When KJZZ asked Mayor Kate Gallego if Phoenix would consider re-opening its libraries and community centers, her office sent the following statement:

“We do not have plans to re-open libraries or community centers at this time. The city, along with Maricopa County, chose to close libraries to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Senior centers were closed to help protect our most vulnerable residents, older adults, who make up the population most at risk. The number of COVID-19 cases confirmed by the CDC doubled over the course of the past weekend, as did the number of confirmed deaths. Every proactive measure we take now, means more lives saved in the future.”

Also during Monday’s meeting, Sunenshine pointed out that children are the least likely to become ill from the coronavirus and said, “The science out there tells us that closing schools just doesn't have any effect on the spread of the disease.” 

A spokesperson for Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman told KJZZ there were other factors besides health that influenced the closures, including anticipated staff shortages and parents afraid to send their kids to school.

Late Monday, a spokesperson for  Gov. Doug Ducey told KJZZ: "Our goal is to get kids safely back in the classroom as soon as possible. The decision to extend school closures until April 10th is meant to give parents and educators as much certainty as possible so they can plan and make decisions.”

Sunenshine is not opposed to closures but recommended they be used to reduce stress on the health care system. She described the county system as being at low capacity and not close to capacity typically seen during flu seasons. It will be at least a year, she said, before a vaccine has been properly tested and deemed acceptable for humans.

“It’s very important that if you implement those strict measures that you have an exit strategy,” she said “What I don’t think is feasible to have everyone shelter in place for the next year, so you have to implement it at the right time so that you have an exit strategy.”

Sunenshine, like other health experts, say Arizona cases will increase as more tests are conducted. People over 60 and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk. On Tuesday, the state department of health  reported 326 COVID-19 cases and five deaths attributed to the disease. 

Doctors advisepeople frequently wash their hands and avoid touching their face while practicing social distancing, which means maintaining at least six feet of space between each other. Federal guidelines recommend limiting groups to a maximum of 10 people.

Maricopa County released a full statement below in response to Sunenshine's comments: 

Members of the Board of Supervisors and County leadership receive vital information about the COVID-19 pandemic daily from dedicated professionals at our Department of Public Health.  One of the most steady and respected voices is that of Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine.  She is an expert in infectious disease who has been consistent in her opinions since the outbreak began in China. We will continue to seek her counsel to guide our decisions during this time.

On Monday, Dr. Sunenshine was asked to give the Phoenix City Council her professional opinion about some of the specific restrictions that are now in place with the closure of schools and the limitations on restaurants.  Her opinion has always been that political leaders should wait until we reach a critical number of cases in the community because COVID-19 is not going away in two weeks or even two months.  Closing critical infrastructure can have negative effects on the public health of the community beyond one virus.  

Dr. Sunenshine looks at the big picture and offers advice to decision-makers.  She also understands that those leaders must listen to other experts and gauge the fear that is circulating through our communities.  Her advice in no way rebukes the difficult decisions made by Governor Ducey and County leadership.  We need level-headed medical professionals to guide us. She will remain a trusted voice at the County as we navigate the uncharted waters of this pandemic.  

County leadership encourages members of the news media and the public to visit  our website for the latest news and helpful information tailored to different audiences.

→  Read The Latest News On The Coronavirus Disease

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.