Scottsdale’s Gateway Trailhead

The parking lot at Scottsdale’s Gateway Trailhead was packed with cars on March 25.  

A group of concerned Scottsdale residents and medical professionals is urging local leaders to do more to prevent gatherings at parks and other public spaces, citing concerns about overwhelming the already limited capacity of Valley hospitals as Covid-19 cases continue to rise.

The group wants local officials to do more to prevent groups from congregating in public places and fall in line with social distancing recommendations from the CDC.

“People aren’t practicing (social distancing) or taking it seriously in my own personal experience,” Jamie Wong, who holds a doctor of pharmacy degree, told Mayor Jim Lane.

She asked Lane to be more vocal in encouraging residents to stay home and to work with Gov. Doug Ducey to implement a stay-at-home order.

The governor holds sole authority to announce such an order after issuing an executive order that essentially takes away any authority to impose broader closures away from municipalities and counties.

Lane cited the order and said the city is in regular contact with the Governor’s Office and other Arizona mayors to maintain a “collaborative approach” and stay in line with recommendations from federal health officials.

“If we’re all trying to drive the bus in different directions, I’m afraid there’d be different elements of compliance on each level,” Lane said.

Susan Hughes, a group organizer and a retired physician, said she is concerned that a failure to curb spread of the virus will overwhelm limited hospital capacities locally.

The group reached out to local hospitals and found there is only a limited number of beds available that would not be adequate to treat patients if the virus continues spreading.

The group found that there are only 872 hospital beds, including just 100 specialty care beds, in Scottsdale at HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea, Osborn and Thompson Peak, said Jill Hecker Fernandes, a health information nurse at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Ducey ordered hospitals late last week to increase bed capacity by 50 percent within the next month and have half of those ready to go by April 10. Health Director Cara Christ said the state will need twice as many intensive-care unit beds as the 1,500 it has now and an 87 percent increase in its current 15,000 regular beds.

Hughes expressed concern that those limited resources could easily be overwhelmed in the coming weeks in Scottsdale.

Hughes and others in the group are pushing for a closure of popular gathering sites like playgrounds, parks and trailheads after some residents voiced concerns about large groups gathering for practices and other recreational activities in recent weeks.

But the city does not actually have the authority to shut down parks.

That lies solely with the Governor.

An executive order issued by Ducey on March 23 that outlined “essential services” preempts city’s ability to shut down businesses and facilities and included “outdoor recreation.”

Still, Wong has urged Lane to provide more vocal leadership to encourage residents to stay home despite the Governor’s order to keep parks open.

“We need someone to take charge and take the lead,” Wong said. “I’m not certain Mayor Lane quite understands the science of what’s happening, and he’s following guidance from the President/governor down.”

Wong said she fears direction from President Trump suggesting social distancing efforts could be ended by Easter will put lives at risk.

Lane did put out a video on social media channels on March 26 asking residents to take precautions to avoid spreading the virus and practice social distancing if they choose to go outdoors.

Lane acknowledged that going out to parks could also have health benefits for residents – echoing similar arguments by Ducey’s office.

“Of course, anybody who wants to and feels strongly about it can convince others to stay at home if they feel that they’re out and can police themselves,” Lane said, “because the recommendation is out there.There is no doubt about it.”

“The recommendation is if you don’t have a need then to shelter at home, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t go to the park,” Lane added.

Still, Lane emphasized residents should maintain recommended social distancing when they go outdoors.

“We have posted signs telling people they should observe the social distancing guidelines from public health authorities and are amplifying that message in other city communications,” spokesperson Kelly Corsette said. 

Meanwhile, parking lots at city trailheads and parks remained packed as residents look for ways to get outdoors.

The school district, though, is taking steps to shut down playgrounds.

Hughes and the other concerned residents initially mobilized to encourage the Scottsdale Unified School District to cancel classes as Covid-19 took hold in Arizona, she said.

Ducey has extended that closure until at least April 10.

“We were able to do that as far as not attending schools, but they’re still on the playgrounds and in the fields,” Hughes said.

Parent and SUSD Governing Board candidate Zach Lindsay said he voiced concerns to the district after seeing groups of individuals using fields and playground equipment at Coronado High School and Cochise Elementary following school closures.

SUSD spokesperson Amy Bolton said the district has notified the community that all school facilities, including athletic fields and playgrounds, are closed to the public.

Still, Lindsay said he has witnessed groups of people with their pets utilizing Cochise facilities since that notice went out, saying it looked like a dog park.

Dennis Roehler, SUSD’s director of building services, said his staff is taking steps to address the issue but is facing resistance from the community.

“None of our campuses have intentionally been left open for public use,” Roehler said. “We have been working from every direction to keep our campuses secure to mitigate the concern for contaminated play equipment and unauthorized use of our facilities.”

Roehler said the district, which has agreements in place with the city at certain facilities, has told partners at the city and local sports leagues that the facilities are closed.

However, Roehler and his staff are chasing a moving target.

He told the Progress that staff found vandalized and missing locks on gates at Cochise Elementary and there is also evidence that individuals are jumping fences to avoid locked gates, pointing to photos sent by a staff member of athletes using the fields at Saguaro High School on March 26.

“We just can’t keep up with it,” Roehler said. “The public needs to understand that social distancing activities do not include using our school facilities that are closed for the specific purpose of mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”