Governor Ducey: In-Person Education Will Continue

Governor Ducey: In-Person Education Will Continue

By Corinne Murdock |

In an apparent response to the push from teachers’ unions to revert to remote learning for at least two weeks if not more, Governor Doug Ducey announced Monday that all of Arizona would continue with in-person learning.

In a thread, Ducey reminded Arizonans of President Joe Biden’s stance on keeping schools open, as well as the past actions of unions striking for higher pay after being promised higher pay. For the latter reference, Ducey was citing his promise of a 20 percent raise.

“IN-PERSON LEARNING WILL CONTINUE IN ARIZONA[.] ‘The science is clear, and overwhelming. We know how to keep our kids safe from COVID-19 in school. K through 12 schools should be open.’ That’s from President Joe Biden. And public health experts agree. Yet union leaders are telling parents to prepare for remote learning. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, this is the same union that encouraged a teacher strike well after a teacher raise was proposed. Once again, teacher unions are playing political games with no regard for the social and emotional impact on our kids. Parents shouldn’t stand for it — and will remember these antics at the ballot box. And at the state level, we’ll be working to ensure in-person learning continues. From recruiting more substitute teachers, to ensuring that if a student is turned away for even one day of in-person learning, parents have a choice and the resources to take their child to a school that better meets their needs.”

Twitter tagged the following warning to the governor’s thread: “Some conversations get heavy[;] Don’t forget the human behind the screen.”

Ducey issued a similar Twitter thread announcement last March several weeks before the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 being announced as a national emergency. That thread announced Ducey’s executive order for all schools to continue March 15 — several days after the one-year anniversary of former President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration.

“ANNOUNCEMENT: Getting kids back in the classroom is one of the most important things we can do as we see #COVID19 cases drop and vaccinations underway. A majority of Arizona public schools are already open, and school leaders have demonstrated in-person instruction is possible to do safely. The @CDCgov has laid out a path for every school to open safely. Public health experts nationally have spoken about the importance of getting kids back in school. In Arizona, teachers have been prioritized for the vaccine, and many school districts are reporting that nearly all of their educators have received both doses. Today, I’m issuing a new Executive Order. It requires public schools to get back to teacher-led, in-person instruction by March 15, or after Spring Break. I know not every parent feels comfortable sending their kids back to school. So virtual learning will continue to be an option for those families. But many do want to go back, and this will require schools to provide that opportunity. The science is clear, and so are the social and behavioral impacts. It’s time to get kids back in the classroom. I’m confident that Arizona has made better progress on this to date than many other states, and today’s action will speed up that process even more.”

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at the time of this report, there have been 1861 reported workplace fatalities from COVID-19. OSHA issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring employers to report employees that were hospitalized or died from COVID-19, “regardless of the amount of time between the exposure to COVID-19 in the work environment and the death or in-patient hospitalization.

These OSHA reports are given within eight hours of a fatality, or 24 hours of a hospitalization.

According to the latest counts, there have been over 24,300 deaths related to COVID-19 in Arizona. In the last six months, a total of over 6,300 deaths have occurred. Nearly 72 percent of deaths occurred in individuals over 65 years old. Nearly 16 percent of deaths occurred in individuals aged 55 to 64 years old.

Nearly 8 percent of deaths came from individuals aged 45 to 54 years old. 5 percent of deaths came from individuals 20 to 44 years old. Nearly 0 percent of deaths occurred in individuals under the age of 20: .2 percent, to be exact.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Attorney General: Students Have Right to Counsel Under Forced School Quarantines

Attorney General: Students Have Right to Counsel Under Forced School Quarantines

By Corinne Murdock |

Arizona law affords students forced to quarantine by their schools for COVID-19 the right to court-appointed counsel at the expense of the state, according to Attorney General Mark Brnovich. In an opinion issued last Friday, Brnovich responded to an inquiry from State Senator Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) on the issue. 

The attorney general explained that schools relying on county health department quarantine or isolation protocol must also adhere to the requirement of counsel outlined in the same law: 

“The court shall appoint counsel at state expense to represent a person or group of persons who is subject to isolation or quarantine pursuant to this article and who is not otherwise represented by counsel,” reads the law. “Representation by appointed counsel continues throughout the duration of the isolation or quarantine of the person or group of persons.  The department or local health authority must provide adequate means of communication between the isolated or quarantined persons and their counsel.”

The law also stipulates that legal counsel must be acquired at state expense and last the duration of the isolation or quarantine. 

In reference to mandatory quarantines for students exposed to COVID-19, Brnovich referenced the authority cited by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) in their letter to communities in August. The letter cited MCDPH authority for student quarantines came from a statute which, in turn, cited the two statutes outlined by Brnovich granting legal counsel. 

“When a county health department or public health services district is apprised that infectious or contagious disease exists within its jurisdiction, it shall immediately make an investigation.  If the investigation discloses that the disease does exist, the county health department or public health services district may adopt quarantine and sanitary measures consistent with department rules and sections 36-788 and 36-789 to prevent the spread of the disease.  The county health department or public health services district shall immediately notify the department of health services of the existence and nature of the disease and measures taken concerning it.”

Brnovich concluded that parents may seek a court order to lift the quarantine immediately, which would initiate the appointment of state-provided legal counsel to the student. A court would have 24 hours to hear the case, and 48 hours to submit its ruling. Counsel would also be available for parents petitioning to change quarantine conditions. In that case, a court would have 10 days to hold a hearing. 

“[U]nder MCDPH’s quarantine requirements, which appear to be issued pursuant to A.R.S. § 36-788, MCDPH, through public schools, is mandating student quarantines without a court order. Once a parent or guardian receives the MCDPH letter requiring quarantine, the parent or guardian is entitled […] to immediately seek a court order lifting the quarantine,” wrote Brnovich. “And once a parent or guardian requests court review, A.R.S. § 36-789(M) requires the court to appoint counsel for the student at state expense. Similarly, if a parent or guardian files an action on behalf of the student challenging the conditions of a quarantine, the court is required to appoint counsel for the student at state expense.”

The attorney general noted that Arizona law doesn’t necessarily define “state expense.” He opined that the cost of counsel could fall on county health departments.

That wasn’t Kelly’s only request for Brnovich’s legal opinion as of late. The state senator requested Brnovich’s opinion on religious tests and denial of religious exemptions by employers. 

An answer on Kelly’s latest question has yet to be published.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Arizonans Getting Exhausted By COVID-19 Mandate Chaos

Arizonans Getting Exhausted By COVID-19 Mandate Chaos

By Terri Jo Neff |

COVID-19 exhaustion is not a medical term, although what it represents can be as emotionally fatiguing as the virus can be physically draining. It describes the sense of frustration and weariness that comes from reacting 24/7 to a pandemic for the last 20 months.

AZ Free News looks at some of the events which occurred last week in federal courthouses, corporate offices, and the Arizona statehouse which illustrate the confusing regulations, legal rulings, and political posturing commonly found with COVID-19 exhaustion.

Private vs. Public Employees

On Dec. 15, Gov. Doug Ducey issued yet another executive order concerning COVID-19. Among the nine-page order are 19 words which seemingly ensure municipal, county, and state officials cannot impose any COVID-19 vaccination on citizens, businesses, or public employees:

“No person shall be required by this state, or any city, town or county to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine…”

Yet just two days later, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero issued a dismissive response to Ducey’s order as she doubled down on enforcing a city ordinance passed in November that allows for termination of any city employee who did not provide prove of vaccination or had not gone through an exemption process.

Meanwhile, the illnesses and deaths of several public safety workers across Arizona who contracted COVID-19 are being classified as work-related, which allows for various financial benefits for the employee or family. At the same time, a growing number of private companies have discontinued assistance for unvaccinated frontline employees who contact COVID-19.

The latest employer to do so is Kroger Co., which owns 2,700 supermarkets and multi-department stores across the country under several names. In Arizona, Kroger operates the Fry’s Food Stores.

According to Kroger’s announcement, any of the company’s 465,000 employees who are not vaccinated will no longer be eligible for two weeks of paid emergency leave if they fall ill. In addition, a $50 monthly health insurance surcharge will soon be imposed onunvaccinated nonunion employees.

A similar COVID-19 health plan surcharge was implemented by Pima County against several hundred of its employees who have not been vaccinated.  The county’s action, which is expected to cost employees $100 a month, is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed last week by the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs (AZCOPS).

Another problem that has developed as a result of various vaccination mandates is the uneven -and potentially discriminatory- decisions by companies and government entities in response to applications for religious and medical exemptions. There are also concerns over employee privacy.

The City of Phoenix issued its own COVID-19 vaccination mandate back in November, citing the city’s status as a federal contractor. The city’s 14,000 or so employees were given a Jan. 18 deadline, along with the option of applying for a medical or religious exemption.

Many employees balked at the exemption process after learning they would have to reveal deeply personal medical and religious information to fellow city employees with the Human Resources, Equal Opportunity, and Law departments.

The Phoenix mandate is on hold while the federal court address challenges to the Biden Administration’s federal contractor vaccination mandate. If reactivated, the city’s mandate allows for termination.

Federal Court Decisions

While a legal challenge or two have been threatened against Ducey’s latest executive order, Arizonans who work for the federal government have not had success challenging President Joe Biden’s executive order that requires federal employees to get the shot.

But for workers of private companies with 100 or more employees, for those who work for a federal contractor, or whose employer receives Medicare & Medicaid funds, things get a whole lot murkier.   

A federal appeals court recently put on hold the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services rules which require staff at any facility which participates in the Medicare and Medicaid programs to get the COVID-19 vaccination, regardless of whether that staff member has patient contact.

But even if that rule never goes into effect, healthcare workers in Arizona may not have recourse to challenge any employer mandated vaccination policy, thanks to Ducey’s Dec. 15 executive order. The governor specifically allows “a health care institution licensed pursuant to A.R.S. Title 36, Chapter 4” to require its employees to be vaccinated, although a medical and religious exemption must be offered.

There is also a Biden executive order which requires federal contractors and subcontractors to implement a mandatory employee vaccination policy. A federal court order put that mandate on hold earlier this month, but the U.S. Department of Justice continues to argue the President has authority to impose such a requirement on America’s private businesses.  

The Biden Administration mandate with the biggest reach is one issued by OSHA that affects more than 80 million workers. An emergency OSHA rule requires companies with 100 or more employees to implement COVID-19 vaccination protocols or face financial penalties. The OSHA rule also requires unvaccinated workers to undergo frequent testing, and only provides for a medical exemption.  

A federal court had put the OSHA rule on hold due to legal challenges from multiple states and employers. However, last Friday a federal appellate court allowed the mandate to go into effect pending any possible action by the U.S. Supreme Court which was asked on Saturday by several parties to get involved sooner than later.

It did not take long for OSHA to react to last week’s lifting of the hold. The agency issued a statement Saturday warning those companies with more than 100 employees to comply by Jan. 10 or face citations and penalties.   

The Trauma Surgeon 

Mental COVID-19 exhaustion can also be caused by the frustration brought on by inane vaccination mandate protocols. A glaring head-scratcher of such a mandate comes from Phoenix-based Banner Health, Arizona’s largest private employer.

Until recently, Dr. Devin L. Gray held medical privileges at several Banner hospitals, just as he does at many other Maricopa County hospitals. But Gray, a surgeon with 30 years of experience, is no longer allowed to use his specialty skills as a life-saving trauma surgeon at Banner’s facilities.

The reason? A Banner Health administrator did not find Gray’s request for a religious exemption to the company’s vaccination mandate to be sincere. The other hospitals -Arizona General Hospitals, Chandler Regional Medical Center, Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, and Mountain View Medical Center- did.

Gray has asked the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to look into the exemption inconsistencies, as well as the amount of deeply personal information some companies are demanding from employees who apply for a medical or religious exemption.

In the meantime, Gray has been told by a Banner Health executive that he can be treated as a patient at their facilities. He is also free to visit patients at a Banner facility. But he can’t treat those patients’ medical emergencies.

Governor Ducey Gives Hospitals Vaccine Mandate Power and $35.2 Million

Governor Ducey Gives Hospitals Vaccine Mandate Power and $35.2 Million

By Corinne Murdock |

Governor Doug Ducey carved out an exemption for hospitals in his renewed executive order addressing COVID-19 vaccine mandates (EO 2021-21), though it banned the state and all counties, cities, and towns from implementing any. Additionally, Ducey issued hospitals $35.2 million in grants to aid in staffing shortages. The $35.2 million meted out to $1.2 million in dialysis center support to Valleywise Health, $6 million for more beds, and $28 million to extend around 300 nursing staff contracts.

According to campaign finance records, Arizona’s hospitals did greatly support Ducey during both of his gubernatorial campaigns: Tenet Healthcare, West Valley Hospital, Carondelet Health, Honor Health, Maricopa Integrated Health System (now Valleywise Health), Banner Health, Dignity Health, and Yuma Regional Medical Center.

Health insurance giants also supported Ducey during his two campaigns: UnitedHealth, WellCare Health Plans, Cigna, and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Makers and distributors of the COVID-19 vaccine had Ducey’s back as well: Pfizer and McKesson donated thousands to Ducey’s campaigns respectively. McKesson is a major distributor of the COVID-19 vaccine, and Ducey’s special advisor on vaccination efforts, Dr. Richard Carmona, was one of the latest additions to the distributor’s board. Carmona was appointed to the board about two weeks after Ducey announced him as an advisor to the state. 

12 News reported Carmona receives approximately $400 an hour from the state to promote the vaccine through Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS). For about two collective weeks of work, Carmona has earned over $35,000. ADHS spokespersons confirmed that Carmon will remain in his advisory role past the December 31 contract end date — possibly through 2022. 

The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association (AHA) thanked Ducey for this decision to reaffirm their mandating abilities. The AHA and its former president supported Ducey during both his runs for governor with thousands in donations. 

The funds follow $60 million allocated in September to aid in health care facility staffing for administering treatments to decrease COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

Arizona, like many other states, is facing a nursing shortage; their number determines the number of beds available for patients. Earlier this month, ADHS asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for staff who can aid in monoclonal antibody treatments at Banner Health, Carondelet St. Joseph’s Hospital, Banner Health Plus, Banner Estrella Medical Center, Valleywise Health Medical Center, Dignity Health Arizona General Hospital, and Abrazo Central Campus, as well as emergency support at Yuma Regional Medical Center and Canyon Vista Medical Center. 

ADHS confirmed the first case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 last week in Yavapai County.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Pollack Cinemas Comes Back Strong After Pandemic Shutdown

Pollack Cinemas Comes Back Strong After Pandemic Shutdown

By Terri Jo Neff |

Many Arizona small businesses were forced to shutter under Gov. Doug Ducey’s various pandemic executive orders, never to reopen. But after Michael Pollack learned his six-screen Pollack Cinemas in Tempe had to close in March 2020, he decided to use the time to renovate the business, which finally had its long anticipated reopening last week.

Pollack has achieved great success as a commercial and industrial real estate investor in Arizona, California, and Nevada. But he told AZ Free News that owning Pollack Cinemas “is more of a labor of love.”

Before Arizonans heard of COVID-19, the projectors at Pollack Cinemas had been running seven days and nights a week for several years. But indoor movie theaters and other “non-essential” businesses were suddenly closed down for several months. What could have been a curse became an opportunity, says Pollack, who was on hand Dec. 10 when the projectors were turned back on and movie-goers ponied up $3.50 for a ticket, the same price as the last decade

Yet despite the modernization, Pollack insists the discount theater’s motto remains the same – that quality is never compromised for price.

“Our mission has always been to provide our customers with a unique experience that starts at the front door.,” Pollack said. “At the heart of our theater is our vision to bring families together for a movie at a price everyone can afford.”

During the closure, Pollack and his wife Cheryl oversaw renovations that involved every aspect of their business located at McClintock Drive and Elliot Road. Many of the changes, such as touchless fixtures throughout the restrooms and 1,300 all new seats with an easier-to-sanitize leatherlike covering, were influenced by COVID-19.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to be as safe as possible,” Pollack said.

There are also new ceilings throughout the six theaters as well as new flooring and new contemporary lighting. But other upgrades, including an upgraded sound system, a redesigned concession stand, and 16 holograms located throughout the lobby, were about providing a high quality experience for audiences.  

“The truth is it was a complete makeover,” Pollack says, one that would not have had as good of an outcome without the efforts of several Arizona contractors, including Shamrock Electric and Merestone Event Production. “Everything has been extremely well received.”

According to the Independent Cinema Alliance, its segment of the movie industry was responsible for $3 billion in annual sales pre-pandemic. That represented nearly 20 percent of the North American box office.

For now, Pollack Cinemas will show movies Friday through Sunday, with the family-friendly “Elf” returning for its annual holiday run. The other days are set aside for the six theaters to be rented out for meetings and special events, including one theater which seats nearly 290 people and can be easily transformed to host small concerts.

Pollack isn’t expecting to have sell-out audiences anytime soon. He understands it will take time to get movie-goers back into the habit of going out again.

“There are loyal movie-goers out there,” Pollack says, adding that he hopes to draw in new guests, particularly those only used to watching movies on little screens. “Pollack Cinemas has always offered a very cool, unique experience. No matter how big your home screen is, it’s not the same experience as you get at a movie theater. I look forward to sharing it with as many people as we can.”

On Dec. 17, there will be a special early screening of the biopic “American Underdog” about former Arizona Cardinal quarterback Kurt Warner. It will be joined by several other movies, including Guillermo del Toro’s highly anticipated suspense / thriller “Nightmare Alley” with its all-star of Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, and Mary Steenburgen.

Pollack says he expects to offer online ticket purchasing later this month as well as reserved seating. More information about Pollack Cinemas and showtimes are available at  https://www.pollacktempecinemas.com