Virus disrupts city, schools in Chandler The Chandler Arizonan

Virus disrupts city, schools in Chandler

Virus disrupts city, schools in Chandler
Neighbors
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By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

From parks to schools, dining to shopping, the emergency created by the COVID-19 pandemic has left Chandler reeling.

While school boards across the East Valley held special meetings last week to begin grappling with the possibility of a longer school closure than the shut-down currently in effect, Chandler Unified Governing Board was waiting until this week to meet as district officials provided limited direction to parents about online instruction.

City officials early last week resisted following Tempe and Phoenix directives that limited food service at bars and restaurants to takeout and delivery, but Gov.  Doug Ducey took the matter out of Chandler’s hands by ordering that measure for all establishments in Maricopa and five other counties.

The coronavirus’ impact hit Chandler recreation sites early last week as residents were already steering away from public facilities.

Andy Bass, the city’s community services director, told the Chandler City Council on Tuesday that his department noticed steep declines in attendance at nearly all city recreation buildings.

The Downtown Community Center, which typically sees about 250 visitors each day, only had 29 people show up on Monday, Bass said.

The Tumbleweed Recreation Center saw an 80-percent drop in usage and city youth camps saw a sharp drop in attendance.

All Chandler libraries also experienced declines in attendance at the beginning of the week with the Sunset Branch seeing about 450 fewer visitors.

Bass said recommended limits on public gatherings to stem the virus’ spread has been a struggle the last couple weeks since his department’s purpose is to provide spaces for the community to congregate.

“This is quite the challenge,” the director said. “We’re used to trying to bring everyone together and involve them.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, the council was reluctant to shut down Chandler’s public facilities – a measure adopted in Mesa, Gilbert and Tempe.

The council discussed whether to force the cancellation of the March 28 BBQ and Beer Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors. But the promoter took that matter out of its hands when it announced an indefinite postponement.

That’s how fluid this pandemic has been impacting Chandler, noted City Manager Marsha Reed.

“This is a very volatile situation,” she said, “things keep changing by the hour.”

The council ended Tuesday’s meeting by deferring to Reed and letting her take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to closing facilities.

But that all changed within 24 hours.

The next morning, Councilman Matt Orlando said he had re-evaluated his thoughts and decided it was in the public’s best interest to close all recreational facilities.

Orlando said he expressed his opinion to Reed and by the end of Wednesday, the city closed all libraries, pools and four recreation centers until March 31.

The Chandler Senior Center will also close and staff plan to offer to-go meals to elderly residents.

Two weeks ago, dozens of senior citizens packed the Chandler Community Center 11 for the city’s annual Senior Expo, with many expressing a wait-and-see attitude on health officials’ recommendations to stay indoors.

Anne Marie McArthur, executive director of the volunteer group About Care, which assists elderly and other people who are unable to easily leave their homes in Chandler and Gilbert because of age or disabilities, said neither the group’s clients nor volunteers have expressed much concern about the virus.

“Surprisingly we haven’t heard from our volunteers or clients about any concerns regarding the virus,” she said.

“Appointments are still being scheduled and picked up by our volunteers,” she said.  “Things may change in the future, but for right now, it is business as usual, which we are happy about. Our services help our neighbors meet their basic needs, reduce isolation and remain in their homes.  I would be so worried about them if we couldn’t provide these services.

“Obviously, we can help in other ways if isolation becomes part of the scheme, such as get their groceries or medications, call to make sure they are ok,” said McArthur, adding that she desperately needs additional volunteers, who can register at aboutcare.org.

Mary Lynn Kasunic, president/CEO of the Area Agency on the Aging Region 1, expressed the same observations.

Her agency contracts with 42 subcontractors to provide a range of services to senior citizens and provides funds to Chandler for its senior center.

Kasunic also said seniors can call the agency’s 24-hour hotline at 602-264-HELP (4357) if they have questions related to the coronavirus and that she would be using 50 AmeriCorps volunteers to call on seniors living alone to make sure they were okay and “let them know someone cares about them.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kevin Hartke on Wednesday said the city was encouraging residents to continue patronizing local businesses by ordering to-go items and not assembling in large groups.

But Ducey’s executive order the next day in effect reversed the attempts by Hartke and his counterparts in Gilbert and Mesa to help already bars and restaurants that were already struggling as people began staying away from public gatherings without even a government directive.

The reverberations of the COVID-19 outbreak were felt by most Chandler businesses.

Chandler-based Waymo has scaled back the ride-share service it offers with its autonomous cars.

ImprovMania temporarily halted its weekly comedy shows at its downtown theatre and all performances at the Chandler Center for the Arts were postponed until April 30.

The Chandler Municipal Court is restricting who can attend court hearings and allowing residents to resolve their cases by phone or its website.

But less clear is the future of the rest of the school year for Chandler Unified’s students.

Ducey was widely expected today, March 22, to prolong his statewide school closure – possibly canceling in-person classes for the rest of the year.

While schools are closed, CUSD has instructed families to utilize a free online curriculum that can be accessed through various websites, but that had nothing to do with the curriculum Chandler students and teachers were following before spring break began two weeks ago.

Some school districts last week were already addressing that issue in limited ways, although all school districts also were wrestling with a variety of challenges.

There is the issue of how to train teachers to teach in a virtual classroom, since not all have that training now.

There also is a federal requirement to address services for special-needs students and the matter of address graduation for high school seniors.

Even school boards that held special meetings last week were looking for answers – and turning to state and federal education officials for answers.

For students who don’t have internet access at home, CUSD said it’s working on alternative options that could include hardcopy instructional materials.

Another issue involved food insecurity for hundreds of needy students in the district.

CUSD is distributing free breakfast and lunch packs curbside at Hamilton and Chandler high schools for all children under 18 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Even the Primary Election campaign was impacted by the virus as some city candidates struggled to get ballot petition signatures at a time when health officials are asking people to avoid human interaction.

Unlike legislative and statewide candidates – who can have supporters sign their petitions at the Arizona Secretary of State’s website at apps.azsos.gov/equal – city and county hopefuls must get signatures on paper at a time when some organizations have told employees to not even accept a pen from someone.

Chandler City Council candidates need 1,000 petitions that must be filed by April 6.

That goal is now impossible to meet, council candidate Joseph Curbelo decided as he dropped out of the race.

“You want to be in front of people as much as you can in big gatherings and groups and that momentum is gone,” Curbelo said this week.

Curbelo works in real estate and said the pandemic has severely impacted his business – forcing him to devote more attention to his career rather than a campaign.

Christine Ellis, another council candidate, said she already has enough signatures, but she was hoping to collect at least 2,000 by the April deadline.

“The more you put down – the better,” Ellis said.

These next few weeks of campaigning will be a challenge, she added, as Ellis looks for new ways to continue engaging residents without meeting them face to face.

Even legislative candidates who can rely on online petition signatures said the virus would hamper their ability to become better known among voters – and raise money for their campaign.

In Legislative District 18, which covers west Chandler, incumbent Democratic Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, a Chandler resident, said, “I have the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot” and that she stopped door-to-door visits.

A cancer survivor who is in a high-risk category for the virus, Jermaine said:\

“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 she counts herself as lucky.

“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.”

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