Phoenix City Attorney

Phoenix City Attorney ruled it would be illegal for each council member to decide what could reopen in their district without the consent of the entire body.

Six months after they were closed at the onset of the pandemic, the seven fields at Pecos Park reopened last week, joining the tennis and pickleball courts, the outside basketball courts and the dog park – which were never closed in the face of the pandemic.

But the bathrooms are the only parts of the Pecos Community Center that the public can use and when anything else will reopen is anybody’s guess.

That means no hoops inside the center and only virtual activities for those who in pre-pandemic days attended the senior center. 

And the teams that reserve playing time on the Pecos fields – or any of Phoenix’s other 154 fields – are required to appoint someone  to make sure players, spectators and coaches are wearing masks, that physical distancing is observed as much as possible and that anyone using them passes a checklist of COVID-19 symptoms.

And park rangers will be roaming Pecos Park and other city fields to make sure the rules are being followed, with a possible penalty of teams losing their right to reserve the fields for play. Phoenix is the only city enforcing health guidelines, with other municipalities relying instead on self-enforcement.

Meanwhile, Ironwood and the other Phoenix Library branches also remain closed and City Council is not planning to discuss a phased reopening until mid-October. 

Council’s 7-2 vote on Sept. 2 to reopen the fields came on a request by city Councilman Sal DiCiccio and two of his colleagues, who argued it was time for kids to play ball.

Acting city Parks and recreation Director Tracee Crockett had reported that Phoenix was the only city in Arizona that had not reopened its fields, though only six municipalities in the state have opened them for tournament play.

That dubious status, DiCiccio said, meant children in poor households were stuck because “people with a little bit of wealth can travel anywhere in the state to a ballfield” but poverty-stricken kids don’t have that luxury.

His assertion didn’t sit well with Councilman Carlos Garcia, who noted that it was households in poverty that are bearing a bigger brunt of COVID-19 infections.

While Crockett said Phoenix met the three benchmarks used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a guide for opening parks and ballfields, Garcia and Vice Mayor Betty Guardado voted against a reopening. They wanted parks personnel to confer with health officials before any decision was made.

Garcia went one step further, asking if each council member could decide what could be done in his or her district. That measure, City Attorney Chris Meyer said was not legally permissable.

Moreover, Councilman Michael Nowakowski noted, it’s not like the fields have been empty all this time.

“People are using them and the city needs to get this under control,” Nowakowski argued, saying it was important that basic health guidelines be enforced instead of waiting even a few more weeks.

The reopening vote prompted another discussion by Council last week on how often bathrooms could be cleaned in a day.

The only bathrooms, including those at Pecos Center, that are reopened are those serving the athletic fields. 

But Mayor Kate Gallego and other Council members wanted bathrooms cleaned more than once a day – which City Manager Ed Zuercher said the city could not afford. His aides said it would cost $750,000 for a second daily cleaning.

Ultimately, Council decided it would use some of its $290 million in federal pandemic relief funds to give the bathrooms a second daily cleaning.

While it was the last Arizona city to reopen athletic fields, Phoenix is not the only city where libraries are open only for curbside service. Indeed, only Chandler opened its four libraries last week, though at limited capacity with a reservation system.

When Ironwood Library reopens, a similar system could well be in place.

“I don’t know how many people asked about reopening,” Assistant City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. told Council last week, citing the “multiple ways we’ve been able to serve in an alternative way.”

“Some of the changes we’ve made – people want to stay in place,” he added. “We couldn’t go back to the way we were operating before COVID, with large congregating furniture that a whole bunch of people were sitting on, not having spaced out. It would be a different kind of environment.”

Library officials said they will brief Council next month about controlling library access by keeping meeting rooms closed and putting computer use on a reservation basis.

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