AFN_031720_News_ChaosCancellations

Libby Goff on Sunday helped man a sanitized petition drive by Save Our Schools to get a school funding measure on the November ballot. (Chris Mortenson/AFN Photographer)

Fears over the coronavirus struck virtually every facet of Ahwatukee with breathtaking speed last week as officials shuttered schools, residents stormed supermarkets, some churches canceled services and business owners and nonprofits worried about their immediate and long-term future.

From Little League to pre-Primary Election campaigning, the impact was profound as some of the community’s premier events were indefinitely postponed or canceled.

Falling victim to the virus were the 44th annual Ahwatukee Easter Parade and Spring Fling, the Ahwatukee Chamber of Commerce’s spring golf tournament and the Festival of Lights’ renamed Wine, Beer and Culinary Festival and the Y OPAS annual book sale. The Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA also canceled all group activities, including classes, youth sports and toddler care indefinitely.

As of Tuesday night, under an order by Mayor Kate Gallego, all bars and restaurants in Phoenix, including Ahwatukee, can only offer drive-trough, curb pickup or delivery service after she directed they cancel dine-in service until further notice. Shortly after that, Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Inc., announced that effective March 18, it will temporarily close Gila River Hotels & Casinos – Wild Horse Pass, Lone Butte and Vee Quiva. The decision came after heightened concerns for the health and safety of our team members and guests during the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is a look at how Ahwatukee was impacted during the initial days of the nation’s reaction to the epidemic.

 

Schools shut down

Unease over the virus’ spread triggered a domino effect in Ahwatukee that accelerated in less than a day late last week.

Within hours of a conference call with 400 school administrators across Arizona on Thursday that had ended with Gov. Doug Ducey and other state officials saying there was no need to close schools, Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely was among the first administrators in the Valley to ultimately brush aside that advice after conferring with the Governing Board.

Vesely closed the district’s 25 campuses and said she and the board would discuss the closure’s duration and next steps at a meeting slated for last night, March 17. 

Under new rules being adopted by many school boards and municipal councils across the Valley, public attendance was prohibited and people were encouraged to watch the proceedings online. 

Tempe Union High School District followed Vesely’s lead by mid-day Friday, partly in reaction to the closure of both its feeder districts – Kyrene and Tempe Elementary. By the end of the day, Horizon Honors did the same with its elementary and secondary schools. 

Tempe Union had planned to resume classes after spring break.

In announcing the closures, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil explained the decision to resume classes by citing Thursday’s reassurances from Ducey, Health Services Director Cara Christ and state Superintendent of Schools Kathy Hoffman that schools could be safely kept open as long as elevated measures were taken to ensure students’ and staffs’ safety.

“We have also been mindful of student and staff travel and had monitored those individuals accordingly,” Mendivil said. “We were also planning for excessive absences due to those who may have traveled, continuity with programming, and practicing social distancing measures. With all of the above, we were confident in starting back to school on Monday, March 16.”

But Mendivil said he changed his mind “because we work in a collaborative, tri-district manner” and felt closure “is the best decision for our students, families, teachers, and staff.” 

As more districts announced Friday and Saturday they were closing, Ducey and Hoffman  on Sunday afternoon declared that all schools in Arizona would be closed until March 27. 

But the prospects of a longer closure quickly loomed Monday, although nothing official has yet been announced.

In the meantime, Tempe Union announced a series of measures to help students continue their education from home. They also will be allowed to get laptops if they need them from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 19 at the district office, 500 Guadalupe Road, Tempe. Further information is at the district website, tempeunion.org.

The closures in Ahwatukee left many parents scrambling for day care and babysitters while uncertainty loomed over what might happen if the classes remain suspended into next month.

At the district level, attention turned to helping needy families and students who face food insecurity as well as how to implement online instruction.

To address food security concerns for less fortunate families, Kyrene’s food service workers were to start providing packages of cold breakfasts and lunches for pickup yesterday at Colina Elementary in Ahwatukee, the Kyrene Family Resource Center and four other locations. Times and locations at Kyrene.org/911.

The resource center, 1330 E. Dava Drive, Tempe, also was making food boxes and hygiene supplies available at 7 a.m.-7 p.m. through Friday. Tempe Union also is making take-out breakfast and lunch meals available between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at Mountain Pointe High School, but students must be present to get them.

It also needs donations of disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, deodorant, hand soap, granola and protein bars, cheese crackers, cereal, peanut butter, jelly, pasta and sauce, rice and beans. Kyrene officials asked for community donations to be dropped by the center during operating hours.

Tempe Union not only cancelled all athletic events and other extracurriculars, but also SAT tests that had been scheduled for last Saturday. It said those tests might be rescheduled for March 28, but that date is uncertain in light of the governor’s decision to close schools through March 27.

Though officials at both Tempe Union and Kyrene indicated they have discussed the possibility of online instruction, neither district as of press time had announced a firm plan.

Ducey and Hoffman encouraged administrators to “make every effort to provide continued education learning opportunities through online resources or materials that can be sent home.”

They also underscored the dilemma facing many Ahwatukee parents: What to do about their kids while stuck at home.

They stressed the need for “educating parents on recommendations from public health officials for kids who are not at school to remain at home to the greatest extent possible.”

Ducey and Hoffman also said they are “coordinating with partners in the non-profit, faith-based and education communities to make available childcare options to families who need it.”

 

Few options for kids

The options for children and teens outside their homes seemed scant even by Monday, anyway.

Ducey announced a state partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs, which initially was giving priority to those who already are members because their facilities’ capacity could be challenged. Parents can check availabilities and locations at  bgcmp.org.

Meanwhile, all programs at Ironwood Library and the rest of the Phoenix library system are cancelled and the buildings closed.

At Pecos Center, all programs were suspended and the building closed.

Even the Ahwatukee Little League, whose season just began two weeks ago, suspended play until at least April 6.

Phoenix officials stressed that all hiking trails remain open, but other than that, creation activities appeared to be nil.

 

Seniors impacted too

Not only are seniors at a higher risk for the virus, but some also face other hardships.

Phoenix officials announced that those seniors who depend on the Pecos Center for lunch would be told next steps at some point, although as of Monday there was no concrete information.

Last week started normally for the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA’s Y Outreach Program for Ahwatukee Seniors, which provides rides for seniors who need transportation to doctors, grocery stores and other places as well as handyman and other services.

On March 10, Y OPAS director Mark Mansir said, “As of yet, I have not observed any noticeable change in the number of folks volunteering.  Our ride schedule – those asking for rides, and those volunteering – appears normal and we are filling all our rides as normal. 

“I also haven’t noticed any increase in folks cancelling appointments. For all purposes so far seems like business as usual,” he added, noting the program’s monthly luncheon was going on as scheduled.

 That situation remained unchanged by Monday, even though the Y itself shut down. “So far nothing has changed,” he said. “My volunteers are still working and it’s business as usual.

Meanwhile, the annual book sale slated for March 28-29 that helps fund Y OPAS was postponed indefinitely.

Peope who want to volunteer to provide rides also are asked not to come to the Y, but to call 602-212-6088.

Even into Wednesday last week, seniors elsewhere seemed largely unfazed by the virus.

Late last week, Mary Lynn Kasunic, president/CEO of the Area Agency on the Aging Region 1, said seniors centers that her organization funds – including those in Phoenix – were not reporting 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.

But 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 had been calling the agency’s 24-hour hotline (602-264-4357) for seniors and that the calls that had come in were largely from people who didn’t want to go out in public to do grocery shopping.

But she said people 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.

Local senior living communities, including LivGenerations Ahwatukee and Mountain Park Senior Living, clamped down on visits from outsiders and elevated screening for those who were allowed in – although owners of both facilities said there had not been any confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Spectrum Retirement, owners of Mountain Park Senior Living, restricted visits to those “deemed essential” and closed off visits to residents in its memory care area.

Screenings of visitors, staff and residents included not only a questionnaire designed by the Centers for Disease Control but also a temperature check.

Enhanced cleaning measures and a cancellation of outdoor visits to casinos and other places also were in effect at both facilities.

Scott McCutcheon, CEO of Liv Generations 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,” he said. “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, but noted, “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.” 

“The key here is to stay nimble and watch this virus closely…and make changes to the protocol as necessary,” he added.

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 alright.

“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.

On social media, one Ahwatukee resident suggested that parents encourage their children who must now stay at home to write letters to seniors since the elderly can’t have visitors.

 

An eerie social landscape

The social landscape in Ahwatukee was severely impacted, threatening the pocketbooks of local restaurants and nonprofits.

Scores of immediate and future events were cancelled, including the 25th annual Wine, Beer & Culinary Festival slated April 17 by the Ahwatukee Festival of Lights.

Committee members – who this year added the word “culinary” to enhance the popular fundraiser’s identity – said they were looking at May or June to reschedule the one of only two fundraisers it holds that enable them to put up the million white lights on Chandler Boulevard during the holiday season.

The Ahwatukee Swim, Tennis and Events Center cancelled both Tukee Fest and the annual Ahwatukee Dog Show, though its pool and tennis courts remain open.

However, most activities at the Ahwatukee Recreation Center, a hub especially for seniors, were cancelled until further notice and late Monday the Kiwanis Club of Ahwatukee for the first time in history canceled the annual Easter Parade that was to be held April 11. 

Corpus Christi Church canceled its annual collection of clothing and furniture for the St. Vincent DePaul Center slated for the end of the month, although Ahwatukee Boy Scout Troop 78 planned to go ahead with its March 28 rummage sale 7-11:30 a.m. at Esperanza Lutheran Church’s parkling lot. 

And Emma Caumont and husband Ron Rocco said they still planned to hold their vegan and bread-making courses in their home on the weekends, saying that they’re adding cooking safety and hygiene to their lesson plan (phoenicianoasis.com).

Kyrene Governing Board member John King, who also plays bass for the band  Splash, said his group had six upcoming March gigs canceled.

 “We did manage to salvage a couple more this past weekend at the resorts but as of today, they are closed,” he said, adding a performance at a senior resort on Sunday drew 300 people.

“The band can stay sequestered so we don’t have any direct contact with anyone,” King said, adding that Splash “had no April dates canceled but I am expecting they will be.”

Lakeshore Music, like many concert promoters, canceled this Saturday’s appearance of Hot Club of San Francisco at Tempe Center for the Arts, along with its April 25th concert featuring Cuban jazz pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa. Its final show of the season, Tamir Hendelman’s Spirit of Israel Ensemble, on May 16 is unaffected at this point, spokesman Lee Shappell of Ahwatukee said.

Churches also felt the impact. 

Some, like Mountain View Lutheran Church, cancelled services altogether while others, like the Pairsh of St. Benedict in Ahwatukee, said that while the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix had not yet cancelled Sunday masses as other dioceses in the country have, some traditions were suspended – such as the hand-shaking greeting among congregants and hand-holding during prayers.

Mountain Park Church held services, but told its members that it would monitor the situation in the future. The CDC’s recommendation that gatherings of more than 50 people should be cancelled for eight weeks may likely affect all churches as early as this weekend.

Mountain Park Executive Pastor Jan Van Amerongen tried to comfort church members in an email, telling them:

“Finally, let’s remember that COVID-19 did not catch God by surprise. He is not scratching his head thinking ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming!’ Nor is he wondering how we feel about it. Not only does he see our hearts, he also understands them as one who has walked in our shoes (or sandals!). He experienced worry, anxiety, and fear. . . and when he was getting ready to experience the greatest trial of his life, he reminded his disciples “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!’” 

The Ahwatukee Community Garden also remained open Sunday as organizers reminded folllowers “plants don’t get the virus” and had a photo of barren toilet paper tubes in a back that said “toilet paper seeds 25 cents each.”

But the financial impact affected fundraising efforts big and small beyond the Festival of Lights, though some were going forward as planned. 

Easter Parade Boss Mike Schmitt said the Kiwanis Club would refund any parade entry fees paid so far, but noted that because the club is an IRS-approved nonprofit, donors could write off those fees as a tax-deductible donation since they can fund its many charitable activities, particularly helping foster kids.

Jennifer Armer of the Ahwatukee-based Armer Foundation for Kids still planned to go through with a fundraiser 7-10 a.m. Saturday, March 21, at the Chandler Coffee and Cars event at Kneaders Bakery, 1090 W. Queen Creek Road , Chandler, to raise money for a little boy who is nonverbal and nonmobile as the result of cerebral palsy.

Armer is hoping to raise money to buy Avi Srinivasan an adaptive bicycle. 

“Having this bike would allow him to enjoy time outside with our friends and neighbors,” Avi’s mother Jessica said. “We live in a cul-de-sac and the kids all get together to rollerblade, skateboard and ride bikes together. It breaks my heart that he can’t join in. Having this bike would give us a way to get him in the middle of the action.”

On the other hand, tumbling stocks jeopardize St. Benedict’s fundraising campaign for a new church, which had just recently hit the halfway mark.

“Some parishioners pledged shares and those are now less valuable,” said campaign chair Eamonn Ahearne, adding that it was unclear if cash pledges made through a monthly debit have been significantly affect.

Of more immediate concern was the weekly collection. “If attendance were to drop, the immediate effect would be to lower weekly basket collections, impacting the everyday running of the parish,” Ahearne said, likely reflecting a looming problem for many churches.

Businesses outside of supermarkets also were feeling the impact, with restaurants bearing the initial brunt throughout the Valley. Gallego on Twitter declared Tucson was joining her in ordering restaurants to stop providing dine-in service indefinitely as of 8 p.m. March 17. Art in the Garden Studio in Ahwatukee also cited the virus alarm for closing indefinitely.

Mark Pectol, who with his wife Jody owns Zzeeks Pizza & Wings, was bracing for the future, although he said orders for deliveries were brisk, especially at the couple’s new fourth location in Ocotillo.

“I don’t want to tell you everything’s A-OK, because it’s not. It seems like dining out is winding down,” Pectol said, adding that his Ahwatukee restaurant did a brisk business Saturday with a special to celebrate the pizzeria’s Best of Ahwatukee win.

Citing the run on toilet paper, though, he said he would be calling his paper sup

“If you had told me a year ago that I would have called my insurance carrier and say, ‘What exactly does my business-interruption insurance cover and does it cover virus,’ I would have said you’re crazy.”

 

Even candidates affected 

Candidates seeking a spot on the Aug. 4 Primary Election ballot also have been impacted – though candidates for legislative and statewide elections were not as severely impacted as candidates in nearby communities seeking ballot spots for municipal councils.

Considering that Major League Baseball – before it canceled the remaining 10 days of Spring Training games last week – had advised players to not even touch pens offered by autograph-seeking fans, those seeking signatures for municipal council races faced a major hurdle.

Legislative and statewide office candidates can sign candidates positions at the Arizona Secretary of State website, apps.azsos.gov/equal.

Nonetheless, some candidates in the race for Legislative District 18 seats, which cover Ahwatukee, were shedding door-to-door campaigning for now.

Republican Bob Robson of Ahwatukee, who has filed a statement of interest in running for one of LD18’s two House seats, was among them.

“I have the bulk of my signatures so I’m not worried,” said Robson, adding he’s not scheduling even small campaign gatherings for now because “it’s tough enough with everything else that’s going on.”

Incumbent Rep. Jennifer Jermaine said she also is urging supporters to go to the Secretary of State website, noting “This is the secured website where registered voters can enter their driver’s license number and it will pull up a list of all petitions in your area that you are able to digitally sign.:

“I have the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot and will be filing my petitions this week,” the Chandler Democrat added.

“I canvassed heavily before the Tempe and Chandler elections last week.  For now, I am taking a break from going door to door and heeding the advice of public health professionals to limit possible exposure to COVID-19, Jermaine said, adding she counts herself as lucky where petition signing is concerned.

“County, city, and school board level candidates do not have the option to get their signatures online,” Jermaine said  “I know many of them – from all political parties – have concerns about qualifying for the ballot now that large public events have been postponed.”

State Sen. Sean Bowie of Ahwatukee said he too has met his signature requirement and stopped door-to-door campaigning.

The big concern right now for Jermaine, Bowie and all their colleagues in the Legislature was whether to keep working.

Legislative leaders were to discuss a possible postponement of the current session even as they took steps to curtail public attendance at hearings and other meetings.

As confusion and uncertainty reigned, however, some Ahwatukee residents reached out on social media to encourage mutual support among neighbors.

“As we all practice social distancing, I recommend we set chairs out front of our houses and chat with neighbors,” one resident posted on Ahwatukee 411.

“Our backyard walls make it too easy to totally socially isolate, which is not healthy. If we sit out front and keep a minimum of 10’ from neighbors, it will still be safe and a great opportunity to chat with our neighbors. I look forward to chatting with mine.”

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