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DIGGING DEEPER: COVID-19 intensifies, so is construction of the border wall

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TUCSON - As the spread of the coronavirus intensifies, the public is responding by staying home.

However, the border wall construction near Ajo, Ariz. is still in full force.

On Wednesday, Arizona Representatives Ann Kirkpatrick and Raul Grijalva, along with two others, sent a letter to the Department of Defense, asking them to stop the construction of the border wall to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Some surrounding residents are fearful the construction workers who are here, mostly from out of state, may be bringing in the virus.

Ajo is over a two-hour drive from Tucson.  

There are approximately 3,500 people who live in the former mining town.

Most of the residents are retired, including John Orlowski.

"I know this community well," Orlowski said. "I know we are using sanitation, we're being very cautious."

The border wall construction workers live in Ajo and make the 45-minute drive to Organ Pipe National Monument where they are building a portion of the wall.

The wall will expand across the 1,100 mile U.S.- Mexico border.  

Orlowski and other residents want the construction to pause in the name of safety.

"This is a crisis point," Orlowski said. "I'm not saying whether the wall is a good idea or not, but 90 days.

Orlowski said he doesn't understand the urgency.

Other residents told News 4 Tucson the construction workers often have their families from other states visit them.

There have been reports of parties at worker's homes.

These are parties that exceed the 10 person rule set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Orlowski described what he has observed.

"What I see, people in the grocery store, multiple people in the front cab of a small pick-up truck," Orlowski said.

One of the local residents told the Digging Deeper Team that recently 20 workers descended into a convenience store, leaving the clerk fearful of their lack of social distancing.

Residents were so upset they sent an email to Southwest Valley Constructors.  

News 4 Tucson obtained a copy of it.

The email said in part: "...we are remote communities, comprised mostly of people over 50, with the only health care being a small clinic with very limited resources. Please instruct your workers to respect our community and observe the CDC social distancing guidelines."

The company replied, "Thanks for taking the time to reach out to us about this issue. I am familiar with both Ajo and Why and understand the unique nature of these communities. We take this seriously and are reminding our team that social distancing requirements need to be adhered to both on and off the construction site."

Orlowski added, "Put a pause on the wall. Stop construction, stay home, self-isolate, follow precautions, follow CDC regulations in home states, and stop acting as vectors coming through our town. "

Dr. Bob England is the head of the Pima County Health Department.  

England told News 4 Tucson no town is immune.

"If you think living in a particular neighborhood or particular area or small town is going to protect you, think again," England said.

Doctor England strongly warns all of us, companies and residents alike to adhere to social distance.

"It really behooves everyone to do what they can to abide by not just the letter of the rules that are in place but the spirit of them to try and stop this virus from spreading," England said.

Residents told News 4 Tucson this has nothing to do with politics.

However, it has everything to do with the health and safety of construction workers and the residents of Ajo.

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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