A Phoenix Health Expert Recommended Protecting the Public—and Then the Threats Started

Photo by Camaron Stevenson

By Lorraine Longhi

December 4, 2020

The events would have brought nearly 4,000 teams to Phoenix in the upcoming months.

A public health expert says she received threats Wednesday after she advised Phoenix officials to cancel several upcoming youth sports tournaments in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, advised the Phoenix City Council Wednesday about postponing 30 soccer and softball tournaments scheduled to be played at city facilities from December to February.

The tournaments would have seen nearly 4,000 teams meet, nearly half of which would have traveled from outside Arizona, according to the city. 

Popescu, who is contracted by the city to provide the latest data on COVID-19 and make public health recommendations, noted the risk of large groups coming together amid rising cases of COVID-19. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends postponing travel plans and staying home to avoid the spread of the virus.

Phoenix ultimately pulled the plug on the tournaments after mounting public criticism and backlash over youth sports tournaments held over Thanksgiving weekend. The council voted 7-2 to cancel tournaments and temporarily close the city’s athletic fields, courts, and sports complexes, as well as ramadas and picnic tables until health metrics show a lower level of risk for community spread of the virus.

An executive order from Governor Doug Ducey currently limits public events to a maximum of 50 people, but cities are able to approve events if they meet safety precautions like social distancing.

Tournaments and leagues had to adhere to mask requirements for spectators, social distancing between players from different households and modified schedules to reduce crowding and allow for cleaning, according to the city.

The decision will impact tournaments that were scheduled at four of the city’s five sports complexes: Desert West, Papago, Reach 11 and Rose Mofford. Phoenix parks, playgrounds and restrooms will remain open.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement that this was an unprecedented time in the city that required strong action.

“I encourage people to cautiously exercise outdoors in our parks, while strictly following CDC guidelines for masking and physical distancing,” Gallego wrote. “The good news about vaccines shows us there is light at the end of the tunnel. We need to stay strong until then.”

After the vote, Popescu took to Twitter to say she immediately began receiving messages threatening her for advising the city to halt the tournaments.

“It is *never* ok to send threatening messages to people – and it’s sad that it’s become normalized for women to continuously get them on social media, especially those threatening physical and sexual harm,” she wrote.

Popescu told The Copper Courier that most threats she receives as a public health expert are vague or not specific to the work she does, but that it was important for her to report a message she received Wednesday, which was sent to a private social media platform and referenced her work with the city. Popescu said she felt supported and grateful at the city’s quick action in responding.

“I do a lot of science communication on social media, so threats are sadly a part of that and it’s a weekly occurrence,” she said.

Gallego and Councilman Sal DiCiccio both responded saying threats were unacceptable. DiCiccio said he had asked the police department to investigate and report back on the threats by 8 a.m. on Thursday.

“This is a huge deal and it is for your safety and just as much for the safety of other women,” he wrote on Twitter.

Following the vote, Gallego stated that threats against Popescu would accomplish nothing.

“[Saskia] deserves respect even from those who disagree with her,” Gallego said.

Shelly Jamison, a spokesperson for the city manager’s office, said Thursday that Phoenix police and the Arizona Department of Homeland Security investigated the threat and could only say that it was not a death threat. Jamison said the city takes all threats of violence seriously, particularly against its full-time and contracted employees.

Public Health Advice Becoming Increasingly Politicized

The issue of how to manage the pandemic has become increasingly politicized—first over mask mandates, and more recently as some parents have debated hiding student athletes’ positive test results to avoid quarantining players and cancelling games. 

Gallego said in a statement Wednesday that she empathized with parents concerned over the mental health and welfare of their children, but stood by the decision. 

“By taking action now, we will move more quickly to a time when it is safe to play games and tournaments on city fields,” the mayor wrote.

DiCiccio, who voted against closing the city’s sports facilities, has been at odds with Gallego over her management of the pandemic and called the closures a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“To be clear, Phoenix has no plan to protect the general public from COVID,” he said on Twitter after the vote.

But the larger national divide has escalated to threats against public health officials and elected officials.

Early on in the pandemic—when President Donald Trump began referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus”—Popescu said she took to Twitter asking people to stop using the term. She said she received more than 40,000 comments and that the hate messages continued for weeks.

“It was quite traumatic,” she told the Courier. “If a threat is very specific, I’ve reported it more officially but most are just angry messages or gross sexualizing of public health officials.”

In October, a plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was uncovered by federal authorities. The conspirators were said to have been unhappy, at least in part, over the governor’s coronavirus restrictions.

Orange County’s chief health officer Nichole Quick also resigned earlier this year after defending a countywide mask mandate implemented in response to the pandemic. The L.A. Times reported that Quick required a security detail from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department after receiving a death threat during a Board of Supervisors meeting.

Arizona elected officials have felt the heat too, as President Trump and other members of Congress have repeatedly promoted disinformation and conspiracy theories in an attempt to cast doubt on the results of the election.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said last month that she and her family had received threats of violence as the election results continued to be questioned by the President and his supporters. A video showing a group of people standing outside Hobbs’ home chanting “We are watching you” was shared by 12 News. 

“(The threats) are a symptom of a deeper problem in our state and country — the consistent and systematic undermining of trust in each other and our democratic process,” Hobbs wrote at the time.

Gov. Doug Ducey said at the time that he was working with the Secretary of State’s Office to ensure it had any additional Department of Public Safety resources necessary, and that he would do “whatever it takes” to protect Hobbs.

Popescu said being a woman in this climate is extremely challenging—”the creepy messages I get are constant,” she says—and that women, particularly women of color, are judged more harshly than men are on social media.

“The expectations for women, especially of color, are that we are perfect, not too opinionated, and compliant with what society wants,” Popescu said. “It’s exhausting and I speak from a privileged position as a cis(gender) white female.”


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