Border Wall Work in Arizona Speeds Up, Igniting Contagion Fears

AJO, Ariz. — Motels, mobile home camps and Airbnbs in this small Arizona border town are full up. Work crews stream into eateries for takeout orders. License plates on trucks parked outside the crowded laundromat come from as far away as Alaska.

Around the country, some states have cut back on construction activity to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and hotels and restaurants in many cities have closed. But here in Arizona, the federal government is embarking on a frenetic new phase of construction of the border wall.

The Trump administration contends that the wall will help prevent the spread of the virus into the United States from Mexico, though epidemiologists and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say such a barrier would not mitigate the outbreaks already occurring in every state.

The intensification of construction during the pandemic is raising fears among residents of Ajo, Ariz., and other nearby border communities that the growing influx of workers increases their risk of exposure. Some disease specialists in Arizona are warning that workers clustered in tight quarters along the border could spread the virus around the country when they return to their families.

“This administration’s priority is to get the wall done. The rest of us might as well be damned,” said Maria Singleton, 57, an Ajo resident who has documented in Facebook posts how wall construction is affecting the town — with traffic, noise, dust and, now, new worries about getting sick.

The busy scenes around Ajo are among the many signs of relatively brisk business in Arizona, which until Monday had been one of a shrinking number of states where governors had opted against issuing stay-at-home orders. In fact, Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, prohibited county and city officials in Arizona from declaring their own shelter-in-place orders.

But the governor changed course on Monday after the mayors of several large cities, including Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, wrote a letter urging him to “learn from the unfolding events in our sister states” and issue a statewide stay-at-home order.

Mr. Ducey issued a directive preventing people from leaving their homes except for food, medicine, exercise and other “essential activities.”

He said the order, which allows police officers to warn violators before citing them, was aimed at ensuring there would be sufficient capacity in Arizona’s health care system for infected patients. Mr. Ducey is still allowing businesses to remain open if they are considered essential, which in Arizona includes golf courses, nail salons and pawn shops.

The state is facing a surge in coronavirus cases. Pima County, which includes small outposts like Ajo as well as the city of Tucson, had 187 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Monday afternoon, with six fatalities. Across the state, at least 20 people are known to have died from Covid-19 and more than 1,100 have tested positive for the virus.

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The new wall construction in southern Arizona is part of a wider plan to expand fencing along the 1,100-mile border, a signature goal of President Trump’s.

The Department of Homeland Security announced plans this month to build or replace more than 91 miles of barriers along the border between Arizona and Mexico. Authorities are also planning to build 86 miles of wall along stretches of the border in other states.

In recent days, New York, Washington State, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have all put limits on nonessential construction, leaving room in some cases for such projects as hospitals and homeless shelters.

But in Kansas City, Mo., work is moving forward on the $1.5 billion expansion of the Kansas City International Airport. And in Florida, Virgin Trains USA is proceeding on a $4 billion train route between Orlando and West Palm Beach. Construction is also still taking place on some major public venues, such as the $4.9 billion SoFi Stadium, a sports-and-entertainment complex on the site of the former Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, Calif.

Turner AECOM Hunt, the joint venture overseeing the construction of the stadium, confirmed this week that an ironworker on the site had tested positive for the coronavirus.

ImageA construction truck passed through Ajo en route to the border.
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Ajo, a haven for artists and retirees that draws snowbirds in the winter from around the United States, is far removed from most of the coronavirus hot spots in the country, and seemingly ill-prepared for any outbreak.

The town’s hospital, founded by the Phelps Dodge Corporation in the days when Ajo was a copper mining town, lies abandoned; a small clinic now provides basic health care.

Many of those living in Ajo are older adults, and there are fears that they are especially vulnerable to any transmission among the crowds of construction workers, engineers and truck drivers who have been descending in recent months.

During her morning routine of writing in her journal, praying and drinking coffee, Ms. Singleton all month has been counting the large number of semi trucks barreling through Ajo to worksites along the border.

“I counted 22 trucks one morning and it made me sick to my stomach,” Ms. Singleton said.

While bars are closed and restaurants are only providing takeout, it remains hard to get a hotel room in the town. Workers unable to stay in hotels or RV parks are living cheek by jowl in rented houses.

“Put the wall on pause immediately, that’s my advice,” said Kacey Ernst, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona who has watched the new construction boom with alarm. “These workers are potentially amplifying the virus around the country when they return home. This needs to stop.”

So far, there appears to be no plan to slow down construction. Raini Brunson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the agency was following “government and C.D.C. guidelines” to determine how best to proceed with the work.

“As the guidance changes, decisions will be made as to how contractor employees will be affected,” Ms. Brunson said in a statement.

Kiewit Corporation, the Nebraska construction giant that has hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to build the wall near Ajo and other stretches along the border, said it had taken steps to protect workers, including having support personnel work from home, reorganizing work crews, sanitizing shared equipment and screening employees for virus symptoms.

“This is an unprecedented situation, and we are updating our policies, procedures and guidance to workers daily as the situation evolves,” said Angela Nemeth, a Kiewit spokeswoman. Ms. Nemeth said there were no known cases of company workers on the border wall testing positive for the coronavirus.

The outbreak has been seized on as new ammunition for Mr. Trump in his longstanding effort to justify the border barrier.

“We will do everything in our power to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering our country,” he said at a campaign rally in February.

But epidemiologists say that a wall would do little or nothing to stop the virus, which initially entered the country via infected travelers who arrived on airplanes and cruise ships.

“I’ll be blunt: We already have so many outbreaks around the country and so much community transmission that the wall is meaningless for preventing spread of the virus,” said Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University in Ohio.

Dr. Smith added, “Even if a few extra cases make it across the southern border, those are teardrops in the ocean right now in terms of what we are facing.”

In an unusual twist to border politics, leaders in Mexico are expressing concern that the widening outbreak in the United States could threaten stability in Mexico. The governors of states in northern Mexico have recently urged their president to do more to stop people from crossing into Mexico from the United States.

Yet some in Ajo are not at all perturbed about the pace of border wall construction, which they see as a welcome lift for the town.

“The wall is a blessing,” said Zakir Shah, 47, a Pakistani immigrant who owns La Siesta Motel & RV Resort, which is nearly at full capacity thanks to the influx of wall workers. “Business is getting stronger for me now. There’s no need to shut this down.”

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