With all five seats up for grabs in this year’s election, candidates for the board of Supervisors have a range of opinions on Pima County’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Some support the calls to stay at home and close or limit businesses, while others say that citizens should be free to make their own decisions on how to best protect their health.
Actions by the Board of Supervisors as well as Gov. Doug Ducey have closed “non-essential” businesses such as bars, retail shops, beauty salons and tattoo parlors to temporarily close in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has overwhelmed hospitals in cities where it has spread rapidly. Pima County has nearly 1,000 confirmed cases, though health officials say that the lack of testing means there are more cases that haven’t been reported.
Among the candidates in District 1, which includes Oro Valley and Marana, candidate Rex Scott, a Democrat who worked as a public school educator and principal of Tortolita Middle School, said the federal and state governments’ inadequate responses to the virus have left county governments and local municipalities “struggling to fill a leadership void.”
He applauds the county’s decision to put Health Department officials at the forefront of their public information campaign. Department Director Dr. Bob England has broadcast daily updates, information and perspective about COVID-19 on the county’s Facebook page, and Deputy County Administrator Dr. Francisco Garcia has taken a leading role in answering questions about the situation during board meetings.
Scott said he supports the board’s decision to close bars in unincorporated Pima County and order all restaurants to offer take-out services only. These measures were decided in a 3-2 vote along party lines on March 19.
The only thing he would do differently in the supervisors’ shoes is take a more public role. Scott would like to see each supervisor talk directly to the public about their choices; he points to Tucson Mayor Regina Romero’s use of social media as an example.
“Having said that, when you lose the chair of the Board of Supervisors under very tragic circumstances just as all of this was really getting intense, that probably had a substantial effect on the supervisors being able to take on a more public role,” Scott said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard Elías passed away suddenly on Saturday, March 28, of an apparent heart attack.
Another Democratic candidate, Brian Radford, said Pima County is lucky to see relatively low numbers of infection, compared to other places across the country.
However, when looking at which Arizona zip codes containing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, a Tucson-area zip code has one of the highest. The 85714 zip code (just north of Tucson International Airport) had 67 cases, which included a senior care facility where an outbreak occurred. Radford said this event should encourage supervisors to allocate more resources and support to local senior care facilities.
“When they talk about people that don’t really exhibit symptoms, you can still be a carrier,” Radford said. “That’s what we’re dealing with right now I believe, because with the lack of testing we don’t really know who could be carrying it but not showing any symptoms.”
Republican candidate Rhonda Piña, who currently serves on the Oro Valley Town Council, said the county is working diligently with local municipalities to ensure information provided by governments to their citizens is streamlined.
“We’re trying to work collaboratively to have a united message with resources so that they can help our community as efficiently and as much as possible,” Piña said. “There’s a thing called the Emergency Operations Center and that is a way of participating in briefings where we share, receive and distribute information. In a nutshell, it’s to ensure that the same messaging is going out throughout the communities.”
Piña said local officials are taking the politics out of their decision-making process, “to some degree.” She urges every community leader to do what’s best for their citizens, and believes that collaboration will yield the best outcomes.
Another Republic candidate, Vic Williams, said the county has done a poor job of working with the business community to ensure that the economy doesn’t completely shut down.
“A lot of small business owners, which is the backbone of our job creation in this country, have just been basically put on hold and in many ways put out of business,” Williams said.
He wants to see the county and the state government create “task forces” that work to find ways to open up businesses again. Williams said there are many ways to adhere to social distancing guidelines while also allowing businesses to operate, and those options need to be explored further.
Fellow Republican candidate Bill Beard, a former staff member of current District 1 Supervisor Ally Miller, said the government should not interfere with businesses’ decision to operate or not, because a halt in the local economy will cause poverty to increase.
Beard said he understands the concerns about COVID-19, but he believes the virus is “on par with a particularly bad flu season.” As a supervisor, Beard said he would have provided guidelines for businesses to consider, but would not have mandated that they do anything in response to the coronavirus.
“I would not have mandated that folks essentially huddle in fear in their homes. That is not something that goes to my belief in government,” Beard said. “Americans go out and find solutions to problems. The solution to whatever is happening with the COVID-19 is not going to come from government, it’s going to come from individuals figuring this stuff out on their own. I will trust the citizens to make decisions about their personal lives every single time because when government makes those decisions, bad things happen to everybody.”
Beard said the longer businesses are forced to be closed, the higher the chance they will go out of business forever.
When asked about the county supervisors’ response to COVID-19, Republican candidate Steven Spain said the board has “once again given a gift to their cronies,” referencing the state and local decisions to halt some residential eviction hearings.
“They’re giving gifts to their cronies while making it much harder for everybody else to resume once things open back up,” he said.
Spain has Supervisor Miller’s endorsement for the race. Like other candidates, he is concerned about what a post-coronavirus economy is going to look like, and whether businesses will be able to get back on their feet.
“I think our community has done a strong job of coming up with creative solutions,” Spain said. “But I don’t think the county is looking forward to what it’s going to take to restart business, restart our infrastructure and give this community the shot in the arm that it needs to be able to recuperate quickly once these restrictions start to lift.”
Tucson Local Media will continue to cover candidates’ responses to COVID-19.