Arizona is Already in a New Normal

Each night at precisely 8 p.m., in the Mule Mountains of Arizona and the quirky town of Bisbee, a joyful fracas echoes across the steep walls of Tombstone Canyon. Some howl, some bark, some yip, like scattered coyotes caterwauling in the desert night.

At the start of the pandemic, this ritual was like many across the country, fashioned as a vocal appreciation of frontline health-care workers risking their lives to care for the tens of thousands of people battling COVID-19 in health clinics and hospitals.

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Now, it feels like something else. A release. A clearing of the cobwebs that have for the past year cluttered the imaginations and inclinations of shut-ins everywhere. A roaring call to reawaken the lively spirit that courses through the veins of this old mining town, back to bustling outdoor dining and racing up and down the staircases that snake from one funky little tucked in house to the next, back to packed bars and roof-shaking rowdy live music. The spirit of these nightly calls, now, is “We’re back.” Or maybe, “We’re still here.”

Thanks in part to a prevalent laissez-faire attitude from citizens and government officials alike, Arizona has been rocked by the pandemic, often finding itself in the dubious category of states with the highest rate of transmission, cases per capita, and deaths. In mid-January, the state led the world in average new confirmed COVID-19 cases per capita.

When I flew into Phoenix in early November for a quick stay at the charming Hermosa Inn, it was with plenty of trepidation, despite the consistency of mask-wearing and careful restaurant and hotel policies I saw throughout Maricopa County. When I returned for a road trip across the state this month, the vibe had clearly shifted, the tension I could once read in the eyes of masked service workers markedly softer.

I barreled straight through Las Vegas and into Phoenix, stopping for a few nights at dispersed camping spots near mountain bike trailheads before heading on for a few nights in hip Tucson and then south to Bisbee, near the Mexican border. As a glimpse at the near-term future of post-pandemic travel, Arizona is a fascinating petri dish, a state with ample Trump supporters and COVID deniers but newly outnumbered by progressive city dwellers who helped flip the state from red to blue in the 2020 election. While travelers were far less likely to don masks in small towns like Bisbee and far more likely to do so in the capital the tone throughout has clearly morphed, from wariness to a refreshing brand of ease.

Small towns were consistently the most relaxed, both in the fall and on this trip. Maybe half the travelers I saw strolling the shops of Bisbee were maskless, a number much lower than in Phoenix and Tucson, where even as new case counts dropped from a seven-day average in January that soared above 10,000 to just 630 at the beginning of April, most travelers and nearly all service workers were vigilant.

Last fall, restaurant servers and hotel clerks had unmistakeable looks on their faces as they served tapas and tacos on outdoor patios, looks that said “I get to either risk my life to serve people food or lose my job.” On this trip, the cheeriness had returned, even as the masks remained.

I stayed at several hotels across the state, both in November and March. In November, the Hermosa Inn, nestled into the Camelback Mountains north of Phoenix, was at maybe half its peak occupancy, by the looks of it. Now, the hotel is selling out night after night, says Director of Guest Experience Pam Swartz, with guests arriving from across the country.

On my first night in Bisbee, I had dinner at Contessa’s Cantina, but only after a 20-minute wait. At gas stations throughout the state, patrons and clerks alike milled about maskless, a circumstance that would have driven me straight out of the store last year but that induced little more than an eye roll this spring. On hiking trails, where I’ve regularly seen people wear masks throughout the pandemic, trekkers were far more likely to breathe free, and I caught no glares for blazing by on a mountain bike with my own face unsheathed.

At other hotels, people wore masks at all of them and shared elevators at none of them, but pools were open, mask-free, and packed. My girlfriend recounted walking into a bathroom at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn in Scottsdale to discover a woman at the sink, whose mask had fallen beneath her nose. She apologized, adding “clearly, my body is done with this,” meaning the mask, or the pandemic, or all of it.

A couple nights later, a curious bellhop at the Omni Montelucia, his mask unapologetically below his nose, nearly climbed into my newly built camper van and peppered me with questions about what it was like to live in it, petting my exuberant pup before giving us a ride in a golf cart to the room. We were outside, so I didn’t mind the protocol slip. Masks had begun to feel obligatory and unnecessary, even though I know they’re not actually either. But this is how the new normal is playing out: we’re abiding by the rules, but less because we’re terrified and more because we’ve become accustomed to them, because we know the social order demands it, and because it’s the right thing to do.

The last time I entered a public sauna was back in my hometown of Portland in March. The pandemic was new and real and scary but the yoga studio and spa I’d bought a monthlong membership to had enacted careful disinfecting protocols and I felt if I entered the space, I’d be alone and safe. What I wasn’t was welcome. The front desk clerk was clearly confused and probably terrified that I was selfish enough to visit a spa at the onset of a viral outbreak we didn’t know much about at the time, other than it was killing people at a rapid pace.

Her concern wasn’t lost on me, and though I did go on a few short trips mostly by road and mostly by myself in the coming year, I did so as carefully as I could, and with people risking their lives to serve me in mind. I secured a COVID test and traveled to Hawaii in November, following to the letter the protocols outlined by local and state lawmakers to safely but cautiously reopen tourism, even as across the country covid counts were surging and traveling around the holidays was roundly shamed. My logic for the trip to Hawaii was that I’d arrive with a negative test result in hand, I’d be moving about in a state with the lowest case count in the nation, and I’d be supporting businesses that desperately needed my money.

I felt welcomed in Hawaii, but nervously. No one really knew then whether even the most careful reopening of a state (that took the pandemic more seriously than any other) would be a sound idea. I was part of an experiment, and the tension I felt as a traveler was palpable.

Now, I don’t feel that tension at all. That’s not to say travel is safe, even now that I’m halfway vaccinated. Cases in several states across the U.S. are surging, driven largely by a COVID variant my vaccine might or might not protect against. The CDC has issued confusing maxims in recent days about whether it’s OK to travel once you have a vaccine, and there are plenty of reasons to stay home, or at least stay off of airplanes.

Barring another significant surge in cases that leads to overwhelmed hospitals and overwhelming deaths, that’s unlikely. Hotels across the country saw their highest occupancy rates since the start of the pandemic, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts CEO Geoff Ballotti said on CNBC. Spring break in Arizona was officially canceled at most colleges and universities, to avoid the mayhem that took place in locales like Miami. Events, like baseball spring training and festivals that typically lure visitors to the state, aren’t happening. But still, says Swartz, people are coming in droves. “They’re golfing, dining out, the restaurants in town are booming,” she said. Swartz went to dinner at a Scottsdale restaurant, Grassroots, for her birthday on Tuesday. Every table was full.

Mandy Heflin’s fresh seafood business, Chula Seafood, survived the pandemic in part because the restaurant’s counter-service model made the transition to take-out only seamless. Now, her challenge isn’t finding customers; it’s finding employees willing to work. “There’s just no one coming in,” she said. “We’re putting ads out that normally would lead to five or 10 applicants per ad. Now it’s nothing.”

Arizona is in its high season now, pleasantly warm and not yet searing to its infamous 115-degree summer temperatures. If, as officials are now predicting, a fourth surge in COVID cases is coming, that might coincide with the natural slowdown in summer tourist traffic, as the lah-dee-dah feeling I experienced last month melts away in the heat.

If nothing else, I hope the nightly howls of Bisbee don’t abate anytime soon.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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