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Flagstaff businesses still navigating troubled waters as virus continues to spread
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Flagstaff businesses still navigating troubled waters as virus continues to spread

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Fat Olives Italian Kitchen was a buzz of activity throughout Monday.

But instead of customers, medical professionals dressed in white plastic gowns and wearing N95 respirators and face shields sat at the tables. Employees entered a few at a time to get tested for COVID-19, free of charge.

The tests had been paid for by John Conley, owner of Fat Olives and the nearby Mexican restaurant Salsa Brava, who organized the testing of all 100 of his employees after one staff member tested positive.

By the end of the day, every other employee had tested negative for the virus, Conley said in a social media post. But nonetheless, both restaurants will remain closed for the time being. He said the relief and certainty the testing provided his staff is worth the cost.

“The level of anxiety is palpable and it’s real,” Conley said.

After an initial statewide closure, nearly all businesses have been allowed to be open since mid-May. But in recent weeks, the numbers of new cases of COVID-19 have increased rapidly.

Arizona saw over 3,800 confirmed cases on Sunday alone, the most reported in a single day in the state so far.

Last week, Coconino County saw the highest week of new cases with 273. That number broke the previous record high that had been set just one week earlier with 180.

In response to those rising numbers, Governor Doug Ducey announced in a press conference Monday afternoon that bars, movie theaters, gyms and water parks would all be closed again.

But even before the governor’s announcement, a number of local business owners, including Conley, had taken initiative and decided to voluntarily close.

In downtown Flagstaff alone, Uptown Pubhouse, the Old Town Shops, Karma Sushi and the Weatherford Hotel all announced they would either be closing or reducing operations in response to the skyrocketing numbers of new cases.

Additionally, Fratelli Pizza closed its Fort Valley location "for at least the next few days" to allow employees to be tested after an exposure to COVID, according to a post on Facebook.

Conley said he isn’t sure when Salsa Brava and Fat Olives will reopen. He’s prepared to be closed for a long time and has told all his employees to file for unemployment in the hopes that additional federal assistance is incoming.

He said he feels the state has, for the most part, abdicated authority on the issue of coronavirus, and it is now up to local business owners to make the right decisions in order to protect their communities.

“Right now, we’ve got a total lack of leadership,” Conley told the Arizona Daily Sun. And that situation is unlikely to improve until “we have a governor that grows some balls,” he added.

Conley wasn’t the only business owner who bemoaned a lack of state action and guidance throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Aly and James Jay, the owners of Uptown Pubhouse, decided to close their business indefinitely before the governor's decision and said an absence of enforcement of social distancing at bars has been an issue.

Aly Jay said when Uptown reopened, they worked hard and spent a lot of money to make the bar as safe as they could, installing plastic shields and limiting the number of customers. So it has been discouraging to see other bars flaunt those rules with little to no consequences from the state, Aly Jay said.

As businesses reopened, the governor said bars that violated social distancing guidelines may lose their liquor licenses. But James Jay said in his view, that threat appears to have been empty.

“Somehow there should have been some oversight to make sure you weren’t having people suddenly crammed back into small spaces, because we see now that these are the spots where we’re having a lot of contracting of the virus,” Aly Jay said.

And that’s exactly why they felt re-closing was the right decision to make, James Jay said.

James Jay said neither of them know if the business they have owned for 16 years will be closed for weeks, months or permanently, but they don’t want to contribute to the spread of the virus.

“If you’re going to continue to be a part of your community and do business in your community, you shouldn’t act like a pirate and just take and take and take,” Aly Jay said. Instead, she said they have to make sure they are working to protect the people of Flagstaff.

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