protest

Dozens of protestors gathered outside Town Hall while the Town Council discussed COVID restrictions on Tuesday evening.

Based on recommendations from area healthcare providers concerned with the surge of COVID-19 cases in Maricopa County and Fountain Hills, as well as infection rates reaching unprecedented levels, Mayor Ginny Dickey, after seeking Town Council guidance at the Council meeting on Jan. 5, is prohibiting public events with more than 50 people gathering, which are required to receive special event permits.

While the Town Council did not vote on the question, Mayor Dickey and Councilmembers Alan Magazine, Sharron Grzybowski, and Peggy McMahon supported temporarily suspending the issuance of special event permits for public events over 50 people. Vice Mayor David Spelich and Councilmembers Mike Scharnow and Gerry Friedel were opposed.

“These are trying times. Not only for our business community and families, but our health systems are being stressed to unprecedented levels,” said Dickey. “The Greater Phoenix Leadership (GPL) Health Sector Leadership Task Force, which is comprised by our leading healthcare providers, has asked all Arizona mayors to institute measures to help limit the spread of this disease due to concerns about overtaxing the capacity of hospitals with patients with COVID-19, influenza and other health-related issues.”

Based on Town Council discussion, the Town of Fountain Hills will not issue permits for organized public events of more than 50 people until further notice due to public health concerns related to COVID-19. This is consistent with the Governor’s Executive Order 2020-59 and related executive orders, and the Emergency Proclamation issued by Mayor Dickey on Dec. 17, 2020

The task force recommendation is to limit gatherings to no more than 25 people.

Dickey’s decision would impact a number of winter and spring events in Fountain Hills including the Fountain Festival of Arts and Crafts scheduled for late February. The Concours in the Hills auto show set for early next month in Fountain Park has been cancelled due to the withdrawal of Phoenix Children’s Hospital from the event. Phoenix Children’s Hospital is a participant in the GPL Health Sector Task Force.

Dickey listened to comments from council members and input from the public at the Dec. 5 meeting, but neither the council nor the mayor took action related to the discussion at the meeting.

Vice Mayor David Spelich urged the mayor to not only allow all public events as planned, but also re-open the Community Center, which was closed to activities effective Jan. 1, and open council meetings to public attendance. The town restricted public attendance to council meetings in December following the resurgence of coronavirus cases. “Lockdowns do not work,” Spelich said, citing case numbers from California (most restrictions) and Florida (least restrictions).

Spelich noted that, according to Maricopa County Health officials who do contact tracing, there were no cases of the coronavirus attributed to attendance at the fall arts festival in November. At the meeting Fountain Hills Chamber of Commerce CEO Betsy LaVoie also cited the county tracing in asking that the fair be allowed to proceed.

LaVoie provided comment via email to The Times following the mayor’s decision.

“The Fountain Hills Chamber of Commerce anticipated this decision after the Jan. 5 Town Council meeting and would like to say thank you to Vice Mayor David Spelich, Council Member Gerry Friedel and Council Member Mike Scharnow for their support in continuing special events safely in Fountain Hills,” LaVoie said. “We look forward to collaborating with the Town of Fountain Hills and Mayor Dickey as we look for alternative options for the Fountain Festival of Fine Arts and Crafts.

“We are community minded, member driven, meaning we work hard for our members to support and promote the business and nonprofit community, while being a steward for our town.

“Our Board of Directors will be evaluating all of the staff's suggested options for the Fountain Festival of Fine Arts and Crafts with a final decision and announcement in the next few days.”

Councilmembers Friedel and Scharnow both stated they spent considerable time at the Fall Festival of Arts and Crafts and were impressed by the efforts to keep people safe, and the willingness of attendees to abide by restrictions and wear face covering.

Councilman Alan Magazine said he has concerns about the accuracy of contact tracing efforts.

“I don’t believe tracing that showed zero cases from the (fall fair),” Magazine said. He clarified that he was not questioning Spelich in citing information he had received, just the accuracy of the information.

“In California, doctors and nurses are having to make decisions about who lives and who dies,” Magazine said. “I don’t want that for Arizona.”

Councilwoman Peggy McMahon also questioned the contact tracing.

“We have a responsibility for the health and welfare of citizens,” McMahon said. “We need to wait, postpone events and take everything into consideration and make informed decisions.”

Dickey read off a long list of state- and Valley-wide events that have been postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic. Those include other arts fairs, auto shows and the Fiesta Bowl Parade.

Figures released by health officials as of Tuesday, Jan. 5, indicate Fountain Hills has had 915 positive cases since the beginning of the pandemic. That is between three and four percent of the population. That is, however, about 25 percent of those tested, according to officials.

While the meeting was restricted for access by the public, the town allowed for a system in which residents could email comments for the meeting, and a Zoom link was established to allow speaking comments. Town Clerk Liz Burke cited for the council the numbers of comments received. Those who opposed the prohibition of events totaled 125. She stated that 95 of those were non-residents, including potential fair vendors.

There were 52 comments in support of restricting events, two of those were non-residents.

Dickey also noted that there were an additional 78 comments in opposition to restrictions, but those related to a more widespread lockdown including restaurants and bars, which is not being considered.

Also, prior to the start of the session and during the meeting, dozens of people gathered outside Town Hall with signs and chants urging the mayor and council not to restrict events.