Mesa, like the rest of the nation, began feeling a widening impact of the COVID-19 pandemic last week as officials took additional measures to curb “community spread” of the disease and protect senior citizens, considered among the most vulnerable.
State and city officials tried to reassure the public by outlining precautions already underway even as the coronavirus claimed one of Mesa’s signature events – Cactus League ball. Major League Baseball terminated it 10 days before the season’s scheduled end.
Despite the suspension of classes at the state’s three universities and in school districts in various cities and states, Mesa Public Schools students and most of their Arizona counterparts are expected to return to their desks this week following spring break.
Gov. Doug Ducey, state Health Director Cara Christ and state Superintendent Kathy Hoffman conferred by phone Thursday with 400 school administrators across Arizona, saying there was no need to close schools.
“There’s simply no greater priority than the health and safety of our kids,” said Ducey. “We are taking proactive measures to ensure our schools have the tools necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19 and keep our kids healthy.”
Hoffman said she and her aides are “working closely with public health officials to ensure we are taking the right steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
But some MPS neighbors didn’t accept that advice. Within less than a day of the Thursday announcement, Tempe Union, Tempe Elementary and Kyrene school districts all halted a resumption of classes for at least a week.
But at presstime, MPS was rumored to be pondering a cancellation for the week. As with other organizations and activities, parents should check the school’s website for up-to-date information.
Mesa Community College and its sister campuses in the county also shut down in-person classes for at least a week.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided there was a need to terminate all services, meetings and any other gatherings in Gilbert and across the globe for an undetermined length of time.
The East Valley Jewish Community Center cancelled large gatherings, but decided to keep classes and other activities going as scheduled for now.
The virus also started taking a toll on events. The Mesa Chamber of Commerce cancelled all its regular meetings and other events until May and scratched its annual Taste of Mesa. Nearby, Scottsdale cancelled its 50th Arts Festival for this weekend and the Tempe Spring Arts Festival, slated at the end of the month, also was called off.
Mesa Mayor John Giles posted a video, telling residents, “I want you to know we have the people, the plans and the resources to appropriately and effectively respond to any cases of COVID 19 in Mesa.’’
While some events were cancelled, organizers of others pondered what to do.
Mesa venues and parks for now remain open.
“City departments including the Mesa Arts Center, Mesa Convention Center, Parks and Recreation, City libraries and all museums are following established protocols and precautions in delivering City services to the public.” City Manager Chris Brady said in a statement.
“We encourage our residents to continue to use standard flu-season precautionary measures and stay informed regarding the virus with accurate information from reputable sources,” Brady added.
The East Valley Partnership’s annual Statespersons’ Luncheon April 16 featuring Congressmen Greg Stanton and Andy Biggs appears in jeopardy.
“In light of the information that has been made public in the last few days, we have started reviewing our postponement/cancellation options,” said EVP Executive Vice President Mike Hutchinson. “We should have a plan in the next few days.”
Giles stressed the importance of looking out for the elderly - a major concern here and elsewhere.
Nursing homes and senior living communities in the region, including Las Palomas in Mesa, began screening visitors even before Ducey issued an executive order Wednesday to be more vigilant.
William Swearingen, a spokesman for Spectrum Retirement Communities, which owns La Paloma, said his company was taking aggressive steps to ensure the health of their residents.
“We are committed to monitoring developments and making prudent decisions based on the information available to us at any given time,” he said
Senior recreation facilities, including Mesa’s Red Mountain Multigenerational Center, have taken steps to ensure the health of their customers.
Tammy Carleno, the manager at Aster Aging Inc. which runs classes for seniors, said the facility has taken precautions to protect seniors.
But Carleno, like others who deal directly with people over 60, said she didn’t sense much concern among the people she’s met. “We’re just making sure that when people come in, they’re not coughing and that they don’t seem to have any symptoms at all,” Carleno said, adding:
“We have hand sanitizers, we have signs all over with hand-washing techniques, that kind of stuff.…We haven’t appeared to have any signs of anybody being sick or anything like that.”
She added, “I haven’t had many clients within the facility even really concerned, more or less.
“I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “Now, they’re concerned and they’re taking their precautionary measures. But I don’t think there’s too many people running scared. It hasn’t affected our numbers too much or anything like that.
“We’ve seen a little bit of a decrease but maybe those are people that maybe are running some health risks or things like that.”
Scott McCutcheon, CEO of Liv Generations Senior Living, which has locations in Scottsdale, Ahwatukee and Gilbert, said residents at his facilities “are concerned and certainly don’t want to get it.
“And there’s some concerns and fears that they have, but they’re still enjoying activities and food on our properties right now. And they’re just feeling a little bit more relieved that we’re doing something about it and they support us all the way.”
McCutcheon said the company suspended trips to casinos and large venues and banning outsiders, including relatives, from events like their annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
“We’ve also got our internal activity calendar to have more fun inside the building, but as far as inviting the public in, having big parties, and then going to places that are densely populated, we’ve stopped all of it,” McCutcheon said.
“The key here is to stay nimble and watch this virus closely…and make changes to the protocol as necessary,” he added.
Mary Lynn Kasunic, president/CEO of the Area Agency on the Aging Region 1, said seniors benefitting from services her organization funds in Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert appear largely unfazed by the virus so far.
“We don’t seem to be hearing much in the way of any concerns,” she said, adding that senior centers have not reported any decrease in attendance – or any no-shows among volunteers.
She said her agency has been sharing communications from the CDC and other government health agencies about the latest news on the coronavirus with agency contractors.
While Avondale and Buckeye closed its senior centers, Kasunic said those in Gilbert, Mesa and Chandler remained open.
Kasunic said that seniors who visited senior centers for “congregant meals” would receive meals at home or can pick up meals to go at the centers if group meals are suspended.
Kasunic said not many people have called the agency’s 24-hour hotline for seniors and the calls that have come in came largely from people who didn’t want to go out in public to do grocery shopping.
But she said people who must qualify for agency-provided meals and that the process involves a visit by a case manager, eliminating the prospect that anyone can simply call to arrange for a meal pickup or delivery.
Right now, Kasunic said, the bigger concern involves seniors who are isolated.
She said Meals on Wheels volunteers check on seniors who live alone and get meals delivered.
But for those who don’t, she added, the agency’s 50 AmeriCorps workers will be calling them to make sure they’re all right.
“It’s getting to be a trend across the United States that more senior centers are closing,” Kasunic said, noting such centers often give seniors their only human contact of the day.
“It’s important we call so they know someone cares about them,” she said.
Museums in the city, including the Arizona Museum of Natural History, reported no decline in volunteer numbers or daily attendees.
Alison Stoltman, educational programming specialist at the museum said, “We haven’t yet had any difficulties getting any volunteers.
“We had volunteer recognition breakfast on Saturday, and we had higher attendance than we’ve ever had before,” Stoltman said.
Stoltman said the facility’s maintenance team has spent extra time cleaning and sanitizing all spaces in the facility, but that there are no plans to shut down or limit their daily schedule right now.
Mesa spokesman Kevin Christopher said officials are following the Arizona Department of Health Services as well as the Centers for Disease Control and that “there have been no changes to scheduled events, classes or programs.”
Michelle Streeter of Visit Mesa said that hotel occupancy rates have not shown signs of a slowdown.
“We are hearing from our larger hotels that occupancy rates are doing well in March, which is expected this time of year,” Streeter said.
Local food banks, like United Food Bank in Mesa, have seen a sharp decline in the number of volunteers, because of the spread of the virus.
Tyson Nansel, director of external affairs at the food bank, said the food bank has seen a steady decline in volunteers – a vital component of its operation.
“What’s happening is that businesses and corporate groups are determining how to best protect the health and needs of their employees and individuals to temporary suspend volunteer programs and participating in community events,” Nansel said.
“We understand that they are postponing or rescheduling these until after this virus passes or whatever happens with this situation,” he added, “but volunteers are the lifeblood of the food bank and we desperately need volunteers to help pack our emergency food bags.
“We distribute 21,000 emergency food bags a month. So, in order to keep up with that demand, we need volunteers to help us.”
Nansel said the food bank, at 358 E. Javelina Avenue in Mesa, is following all federal and statewide measure to ensure volunteers and clients are safe. Nansel asks that anyone who’d like to help the food bank can do so by visiting their website, at unitedfoodbank.org/volunteer.