In response to growing fears regarding the spread of the coronavirus, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero announced Thursday a number of sweeping reforms across the city, including not issuing special event permits for gatherings of 50 or more people and suspending Tucson Water shutoffs and late fees for customers who are delinquent.
"As more testing becomes available, we should fully expect more cases to be confirmed," Romero said in a video that was posted on social media Thursday afternoon. "While most cases are mild, we need to be taking extra precaution around the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. The sooner that we take decisive action, the better off our community will be."
The initiatives come just days after the Pima County Health Department confirmed its first Tucson-area case of COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness, after a resident of unincorporated Pima County who had recently returned from an area with community spread tested positive.
That patient reports "that he's feeling fine and that he's recovering from the illness," according to Mark Evans, the county's communications director, who added that "there is ongoing community transmission of the virus in Arizona and in Pima County."
Representatives from the city met on Thursday to discuss options to curb the spread of the virus. Romero said those efforts were designed to protect the roughly 4,000 city employees, as well as the public, as the list included the suspension of all public meetings, including board, committee and commission hearings, suspension of all out-of-city travel for employees, and the evaluation of telecommuting options for employees.
Romero also said that all city employees that handle in-person payments will be issued gloves and encouraged cash payments for all city transactions. If an employee is sick and doesn't have vacation or comp time, they will be allowed up to 13 days of paid leave. Family Medical Leave may also be used to care for potentially sick family members.
"As with any other illness, sticking to the basics can go a long way; washing your hands, covering your cough, and staying home if you’re not feeling well will help keep yourself and those around you healthy," Romero said. "We will continue to keep you updated as things change."
A representative from the mayor's office clarified that they're not revoking permits for any upcoming events but are providing a strong recommendation to postpone any events with at least 50 people. It remains unclear whether a number of those events, including the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, Romero's first state-of-the-city speech, and the University of Arizona's Spring Fling, will continue.
As for Pima County, officials took preventative measures of their own, including recently changing their human resources policies to allow for more flexible telecommuting. While some employees aren't always able to work from home, the county has added additional modification to its attendance policies to accommodate for the positions that require in-person or direct contact with the public.
“The policy indicates that for any employee exhibiting flu-like symptoms, they will be required to stay out for 14 days based on the advice of the County’s Chief Medical Officer,” said county administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who estimated that 70 percent of their roughly 7,000 employees are considered essential to daily operations and public services, whether its in the wastewater, transportation, courts or emergency services departments.
The modified policy also provides up to 80 hours, or 14 days, of advanced sick leave to employees who have already used all of their time off. Employees who need to take advantage of the policy would need to repay the hours with future earned leave.
According to Huckelberry, the Pima County Office of Emergency Management is also coordinating a county-wide emergency response to COVID-19, should it become necessary. Each department is also responsible for reviewing their own preparedness plans.
“Each county department is now reviewing their continuity of operation plans to ensure public services continue to be provided,” he said.
Pima County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Deputy Marissa Hernandez said “it’s business as usual." She said all sheriff’s employees have been briefed and given additional information on how to protect themselves and the public during this time.
“If we do encounter anybody who has any symptoms, deputies and corrections officers are equipped with gloves at all times. We have them in our vehicles and we keep them in the jail, and we also have access to N-95 masks if needed,” she said.
Department officials say they are encouraging everyone to practice universal health precautions like washing their hands and covering their coughs.
In the case that a deputy or several deputies were to contract the virus, Hernandez said the department may have to make some personnel shifts, but they are confident in their ability to continue serving the community effectively.
“Our departments will continue to work together to ensure that public services continue,” Huckelberry said.
Contact reporter Justin Sayers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.
In this Series
Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order
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