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We're Number One


Mark Zepezauer

For years, the beleaguered liberals of Arizona joked that we couldn’t even be best at being worst: the state was consistently ranked 49th out of the 50 states in education and not much better in most of the other indices of a civilized middle-class existence. “Hey, we’re better than Alabama!” we’d comfort ourselves.

This week, our state finally broke out: On July 7, Arizona had the most COVID-19 infections per capita of any state -- in fact, the most in the world if Arizona was stacked up against countries instead of states. We were, finally, number one.

We have stayed in the top slot for the past three days, with 117,000 cases by Friday and more than 2,000 deaths. The state’s hospitals are overwhelmed. Front-line medical workers were posting accounts on social media that were indistinguishable from the harrowing stories from New York in March.

I live in Tucson, where out-of-control suburban sprawl has pushed the population close to the one million mark. Yet in many ways, Tucson is still a small town. A few years back I went to get my blood drawn and was surprised to find my fellow local cartoonist Max Cannon wielding the needle. His darkly funny strip Red Meat ("the most tasteless and twisted comic in the world") had been syndicated to alternative weeklies and once upon a time, his animated show "Shadow Rock" was on Comedy Central. But as the creative class took a nosedive, he was probably damn glad to have a day job.

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Max Cannon's comic strip, when we still could laugh.

Two weeks ago Max sent out a harrowing account from the medical frontlines on Facebook : “We risk ourselves and our family's health each day by doing this work. We watch our coworkers get infected. And we experience much worse,” he wrote.

“The hospital has rationed our personal protective equipment. One single (previous-to-this-pandemic) disposable N-95 mask is supposed to last us for months now. Mine doesn't even fit my face because they only have two sizes available. A number of physicians are buying their own PPE if it is available in a hospital grade quality and is even available for purchase, which I can attest from experience is not easily obtainable despite the products you see on Amazon or elsewhere. Supplies of sterilizing cleaning products are running disturbingly low.”

Max noted, presciently, that “the situation is about to go from very, very bad to unimaginably worse.”

And now that day has come. As of Monday, there were only 11 intensive care beds available in the entire Tucson metropolitan area, home to over a million people. For weeks we’ve had Yuma sending patients to Tucson, Tucson sending them to Phoenix, anywhere a spare bed can be scrounged up. Now patients are being shipped out of state, to Albuquerque, San Diego or Las Vegas.

Charles Bowden, the state’s uncrowned Nonfiction Prose Laureate, once wrote of Arizona: “Here is a land of aching beauty and the people always fail the land.” In other words, the disaster in Arizona isn’t a statistical fluke. Yet Arizona could be—just maybe—the state that turns the Senate blue. Because we’re not crazy. Not all of us. Really. It just seems that way.


Like most Western states, much of Arizona is federal land—parks, wildlife refuges. That’s indirectly linked to the region’s tradition of small government, conservative politics: “We don’t want no stinkin’ federal gummint tellin’ us what to do.” But that’s the old Arizona.

This week, in an interview with Rachel Maddow, Pima County health director Teresa Cullen admonished the host that Arizona can’t be reduced to a stereotype. Pima County, is in many ways, a snapshot of the state, she explained, with more than one million people living in rural, semi-rural, and urban areas, including two American Indian reservations. “We’re a very eclectic group in terms of the country,” Cullen said gently, but pointedly.

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Still, most of the state’s population lives in the two major cities: Tucson and Phoenix. In a rivalry akin to the way San Franciscans used to look down on Los Angeles, Tucson is a university town, and likes to think of itself as the hipper, cooler younger sibling to Phoenix. But Phoenix contains 60 percent of the state’s population. The important Phoenicians are the good old boys, traditionally real estate developers, who run the place. And Phoenix votes Republican. That’s the conventional wisdom. While Phoenix now has light rail and farm-to-table restaurants, it’s often true.

Old Arizona is how the former CEO of a chain of premium ice cream stores ended up handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Doug Ducey, Arizona’s GOP governor since 2015, has the look of a perpetually overwhelmed middle manager and a business record disturbingly reminiscent of Donald Trump’s. At Cold Stone Creamery, his aggressive expansion ended with franchisees racking up nearly a 30% default rate on Small Business Administration loans, the fourth worst in the nation.

Exiting before the collapse, Ducey headed to politics. As state treasurer, he helped the right-wing libertarian Koch brothers defeat an education funding initiative in 2012. Two years later, political action groups funded by the Koch family poured $1.4 million into his gubernatorial campaign. Now there are rumors he’d like to be a senator, but his mishandling of the coronavirus may end his political career.

Ducey’s libertarianism was a key factor in creating the nation’s worst Covid disaster. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, he issued a patchwork of executive orders to deal with the pandemic in mid-March. Schools were shut down for a few weeks, and later, the shutdown was extended for the rest of the term. The governor ordered bars, theaters, and gyms closed on March 19, after many mayors had already done so. At that point, there were 45 cases of Covid-19 in the state of Arizona. With forceful and consistent action, the damage might have been contained.

Four days later, Ducey issued what amounted to loopholes for “essential services” that could stay open if the state shut down. The list included payday lenders, hair salons, laundromats, and golf courses -- but only in counties with active cases, a list that changed from day to day. Eventually, Ducey was forced to issue a shutdown order, but it didn’t last long.

As early as April 17, alarmed at the economic fallout, the president began tweeting demands to “liberate” the states from shutdown. Ducey, along with other red-state governors, fell in line, announcing a partial reopening to begin May 4. On May 12, he lifted his shutdown order entirely, with little leeway or guidance for the more stricken areas. In a state with population heavily concentrated in urban areas, Ducey prevented mayors from issuing any face mask orders.

As the reopening began, the state was poised at just under 12,000 cumulative cases. Freedom-loving Arizonans immediately began acting like the virus was gone for good, flocking to bars, malls and casinos, while mayors were helpless to intervene.

When the state’s lockdown was unconditionally lifted, we were just hitting a streak of triple-digit temperatures that sent stir-crazy crowds to the air-conditioned comfort of Applebee’s and Fuddruckers, unmasked and oblivious.

Still: worse than Florida? That’s some kind of achievement. The state's high proportion of Native Americans, and the institutional racism that has condemned the Navajo Nation to malign neglect, gave us the edge, along with the black helicopter paranoia endemic to the American West. You have to know this mentality to love it. It's a particular kind of crazy that turns anti-vaxxers turn into anti-maskers without grinding the gears.

The inevitable spike began after Memorial Day. By July 6, the state had topped 100,000 total cases, poised on the brink of the kind of catastrophe seen in Italy and New York. Ducey still has not reinstated shutdown orders, and while bars and gyms are closed, restaurant dining rooms remain open. Our ICUs are almost at full capacity and cases continue to rise. As our community is flooded beyond existing levees, recrimination will be as inevitable as the bodies stacked in hallways.

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Arizona Governor Doug Ducey

Arizona is mirroring the nation’s breakdown. The chief executive is malevolently incompetent and it is the female mayors of Phoenix and Tucson, both Democrats, who are fighting to save lives. But their authority is limited, and without support from Ducey, their efforts haven’t been sufficient to stop the spread. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told the news media on Friday that the county medical examiner’s office was at 96 percent capacity and that officials were working to “secure a contract for refrigerator trucks.” Not for the first time, she pressed Gov. Ducey to institute a statewide mask requirement.

Since the pandemic took hold, the political math in Arizona has changed. The Senate race has narrowed between Republican Martha McSally, who is close to Donald Trump, and Democratic candidate Mark Kelly, a former astronaut married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose shooting is still fresh in the minds of people who live in the state. Kelly’s candidacy has attracted national support, and without opportunities for rallies and face-to-face interactions, he can outspend his rival. In Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, Kelly leads McSally in the polls by 18 percent.

Bill Clinton won Arizona by a narrow margin the second time he ran for president, marking what Democrats hoped would be a change in the state’s politics. But when times get tough, Arizona, a boom and bust state, reverts to its traditional ways.

When unemployment claims spiked off the charts at the end of March, Regina Romero had been Tucson’s mayor for only four months. A former city council member, she’s the first female mayor, and the first Hispanic mayor in nearly 150 years. Never an economic powerhouse, Tucson’s main employers involve education, military spending, prisons, local governments, health care and big-box retailers (not coincidentally, most of these are vectors for the efficient spread of airborne virus particles). The median income here is around $50,000, well below the national average -- or the state average, for that matter. And the economy, recovering from the housing crisis, had just gotten going again before it was shut down.

Once, not that long ago, Tucson’s downtown was so deserted that a lone horseman rode undisturbed past the statue of Pancho Villa on his rearing stallion, the past and the present crossing paths as if in that moment between sleep and wakefulness when dream and reality are indistinguishable.

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Then Tucson was discovered. For the past few years, construction cranes have adorned the skyline, building new high-rise hotels and apartments, and road crews have been busy widening freeway interchanges and arterials.

What fueled the downtown building boom was a four-mile light rail line snaking from the University of Arizona to the west bank of the Santa Cruz River. Height limits were relaxed in an effort to encourage density along the route, and since its launch in 2014, the streetcar line has attracted over $1 billion in investment, with new bars and restaurants popping up regularly. A cohort of office workers, students, and trust funders replaced the bohemian atmosphere that flourished when rents were low. But even as it rebuilt, Tucson seemed to be looking over its shoulder, anticipating the next crash.

Mark Zepezauer is the author of The CIA's Greatest Hits and Take the Rich Off Welfare. He lives at the base of the Tucson Mountains and teaches art and history, at least for the time being.

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