PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/AP) -- Gov. Doug Ducey announced Friday the next phase for COVID-19 protocols for businesses and safety as he lifts capacity restrictions on certain businesses.  

Ducey said in a press release that the new protocols come after seven weeks of declining coronavirus cases across the state and as Arizona has administered more than 2 million vaccine doses. His order does not change mask mandates imposed by cities and counties, which remain in effect across most of the state.

Many restaurant owners like Sheldon Knapp of Phoenix City Grille are excited about the announcement.

“My immediate reaction was to kind of do somersaults through the restaurant," he said.

But he quickly realized that his restaurant isn't big enough to actually increase the number of customers beyond what he already has.

“We immediately ran and grabbed a table and put it in the bar, but after we read through it, I’m not going to be able to keep it," he said. “It really is not gonna help us because the tables are already spaced six feet apart. I can’t really add any more seating and still abide by those rules.”

The decision to lift capacity restrictions applies to gyms, restaurants, theaters, water parks, bowling alleys and bars providing dine-in services. Ducey again ignored the guidance issued by his own administration last year, which says those businesses should be closed altogether under the current “substantial” level of virus spread across most of Arizona. 

“We’ve learned a lot over the past year,” said Gov. Ducey said in a statement. “Our businesses have done an excellent job at responding to this pandemic in a safe and responsible way. We will always admire the sacrifice they and their employees have made and their vigilance to protect against the virus."

Not all business owners are on board with the changes.

“I think the timing’s off," said Chris Scheimann, owner of Tangible Fitness in Phoenix. "I would like to get through spring break and see what happens.”

Scheimann is going to keep his gym at 25% capacity by his own choice. Aside from his concerns over people traveling far and wide during spring break, he’s also hesitant to drop his scheduling system, which only allows up to 40 people in at a time.

“I think it’s their choice. And people still have a choice as to where they want to go. And we’re providing a safe choice," he said.

Ducey took a more cautious stance than his fellow Republican governors in Mississippi and Texas, who this week rescinded their mask mandates and capacity restrictions entirely in a swift return to normal. Arizona has not had a statewide mask mandate.

“Today’s announcement is a measured approach; we are not in the clear yet,” Ducey said. “We need to continue practicing personal responsibility. Wear a mask. Social distance. Stay home when you’re sick and wash your hands frequently.”

The move was met with opposition from most of the state’s big hospital chains, including Banner, Dignity, HonorHealth, Tenet and Northern Arizona Healthcare.

“"The COVID-19 mitigation strategies throughout the state are reasonable and evidence-based. Now is not the time to relax our mitigation efforts; we must stay the course to ensure that our vaccination efforts can outpace the spread of the virus,” the Health System Alliance of Arizona wrote in a statement.

Several Arizona doctors weighed in as well, echoing similar statements.

"It's just a really fine line were walking right now because if we don't take this seriously for just a short while longer there is always the potential that this aggressive virus will be able to take hold somewhere and we can see another outbreak and obviously none of us want that to happen," says Dr. Kyle Freese, Chief Epidemiologist for STC Health.

Dr. Frank LoVecchio, an emergency medicine physician, agrees, but also understands the plight for local businesses.

"Of course, if you wait a few more months from now and more of us will be vaccinated and then there is less chances of us ending up in a hospital and potential deaths, but you have to balance that with the fact that there are losses of businesses losing income," said Dr. LoVecchio.

Sal DiCiccio, a conservative member of the Phoenix City Council, thanked Ducey “for opening up Arizona.”

“Businesses have been hurting greatly and now there will be no restrictions on the number of people,” DiCiccio wrote on Twitter. “This is a major win towards full recovery.”

Until Friday, gyms were required to operate at 25% of their typical capacity while restaurants, movie theaters and water parks could operate at up to 50%. Ducey’s order lifts those restrictions but maintains other requirements, including mask requirements while not eating and social distancing between parties.

Baseball teams can play spring training games with a state-approved plan for safety protocols and physical distancing. The Cactus League and leaders of cities with stadiums in January asked MLB to delay spring training. COVID-19 case counts have dropped since then, and games began last week with limited fans.

Arizona has passed the 2 million mark for COVID-19 vaccine doses administered to 1.3 million people, including 711,074 people who have received two doses, the Department of Health Services said Friday.

“This is certainly a milestone, but there is plenty of work ahead and millions more Arizonans in need of vaccination,” said Dr. Cara Christ, the department’s director.

Ducey's full press release can be found here

 

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