The Pima County Board of Supervisors approved spending $2 million to provide temporary housing at a Tucson hotel for asylum seekers who test positive or have been exposed to COVID-19.
The action aims to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by allocating money to house affected asylum seekers from the National Board Program, part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Qualifying individuals will be referred by Casa Alitas Welcome Center, an emergency shelter established by the Catholic Community Services and Pima County, and will receive food and medical care during their stay.
Board members approved the action Tuesday with Supervisor Steve Christy representing the only dissenting vote.
“It’s important for public health. This is going to allow hotel shelter for COVID-19 exposed (and) positive asylum seekers,” Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said. “It will really just allow for the space needed in this critical time to ensure that people are healthy while they’re in our community.”
Ahead of the vote, Christy opened the discussion by saying he faced backlash after the last board meeting when he questioned whether asylum seekers may be a “COVID-spreading mechanism in Pima County.”
The District 4 supervisor requested that the Pima County administrator and Health Department acknowledge that “there is a significant problem with the spread of COVID-19 by asylum seekers” or explain why the COVID-19 housing measure is necessary.
In response, Supervisor Rex Scott read from a memo written by Dr. Theresa Cullen, the Health Department's public health director, that explained the program would limit COVID-19 exposure by keeping infected individuals out of settings where transmission is more likely.
Scott also reiterated that the program was not being funded by the Pima County general fund, but with federal COVID-relief dollars.
“If we were not using these federal funds to house asylum seekers who may be infected with COVID-19 in these special accommodations, they would be in congregate settings where they would be more likely to spread the virus,” said Scott in an interview.
Before the action was approved, Christy closed the discussion by stating that the funds are still coming from taxpayer dollars.
The $2,008,000 contract will be awarded to Jot Properties LLC., a company that owns a Red Roof Inn located near Tucson International Airport where qualifying asylum seekers will be housed.
The contract said the entire hotel, 117 rooms, will be made available to house immigrants and will not rent rooms to the general public during the period of the contract. The hotel will provide housekeeping services and deep cleaning of rooms during the contract period.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said 8,420 asylum seekers have been taken in at Casa Alitas from March 2021 to Sept. 3. Of those, he said, there have been 292 immigrants who tested positive for COVID-19, or about 3% of the total number.
The contract may be renewed after the initial four-month term if necessary, according to county officials.
Reporter Sam Kmack covers local government. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.