Yuma, Arizona’s pandemic experience is a tale of two borders, each affecting a different part of the region’s economy.

To the south and west lie the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. Thousands of workers cross the border with Mexico, some seasonally and some every day — even during the pandemic — to help care for billions of dollars worth of produce grown in Yuma County. The county, known as the “lettuce capital of the U.S.,” produces 90% of the nation’s winter lettuce supply.

A thousand miles to the north, the Canadian border is the point of access for snowbirds traveling to second homes and tourist attractions in Yuma County. These travelers and part-time residents have been stuck on the Canadian side of the border for the past 16 months, along with the money they would have spent in the local economy.

Last year Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared agricultural workers to be essential, which means people living in Mexico who are employed in Yuma County on H2-A (temporary ag worker) visas can cross the border for work, even though the border is closed to other travelers. 

Canadian tourists, obviously, were not deemed essential workers, and their absence from the local economy stung in Yuma County.

“Everyone thinks the biggest border for us is the Mexican border,” said Kimberly Kahl, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce. But for tourism in Yuma County, the Mexican border is less significant. “For us, it’s the Canadian border that’s important,” Kahl said. 

Yuma County, which constitutes a small metropolitan area in southwest Arizona, did see a big influx of tourists from California once the state opened up after the early months of the pandemic. But tourism hasn’t reached the same level that Canadian snowbirds traditionally create, Kahl said. 

“I think when the state opened up, everyone wanted to travel a lot more,” she said. “I know some of our member hotels were booked solid on the weekends for a period.”

Yuma County Courthouse in 2010. (Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr, Creative Commons)

Vaccination and the Borders

Vaccines weren’t a factor in this initial uptick in domestic travel, because it started before Covid-19 vaccines were available. 

But U.S. vaccinations will play a role in opening international borders to tourists. Canada plans to open the border to U.S. travelers on August 9, but only for those who are fully vaccinated.

The U.S. plans to reopen the borders with Canada and Mexico on August 21. An initial effort to open the borders this month got pushed back out of concern for rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. The increase is fueled by the more contagious Delta variant of Covid-19, which is spreading primarily via people who have not been completely vaccinated.

For its part, Yuma County has vaccinated 48.6% of its population, putting the county in the top 15% in the nation for vaccinations. Over 60% of the population aged 18 and older is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kahl said the chamber worked with both the Yuma County Health Department and its members to coordinate getting their employees vaccinated. But most of their members are retail, restaurant, and hospitality businesses, she said, not large-scale agricultural businesses.

Workers pick romaine lettuce in a field near Yuma, Arizona, on November 23, 2012. (Photo by Peter Haden via Flickr, Creative Commons)

Reaching Agricultural Workers

Agricultural workers created a different set of issues for local health officials. Much of the agricultural labor force is migratory, meaning it follows seasonal harvests around the U.S. Some of this number are also immigrants. More than 9,000 temporary work visas were issued to farmworkers in Arizona during 2020, most of them in Yuma County. 

According to Purdue University’s Food and Agriculture Vulnerability Index, 7,200 agricultural workers had tested positive for Covid-19 as of March 10. About 1,000 of those were in Yuma County. The county of about 214,000 residents has had more than 74,000 Covid-19 infections cumulatively and more than 850 Covid-related deaths, according to the CDC.

Officials and healthcare partners have been working to get the migrant workers vaccinated. 

Amanda Aguirre, executive director with the Regional Center for Border Health, said her clinic, as well as the Health Department, worked with the larger agricultural companies to get the workers vaccinated. That included taking workers to the drive-through vaccination clinics.

But many have moved on. While many of the larger farms worked with the center and the Yuma County Health Department to get their workers vaccinated, there was a lot of resistance to getting the vaccine from migrant workers, Aguirre said.

Also, migrant workers in the U.S. have a harder time getting access to vaccines, according to the Migrant Clinicians Network

As demand for the vaccine has waned, Aguirre said she is still working with businesses and others to get information out about the vaccines and their importance.

“We’re trying to develop campaigns to reach out,… and continue testing and also vaccinating,” she said. “We’re creating educational campaigns to get to the people that are very hesitant to be vaccinated right now… those families that are still hard to reach but also hesitant to get vaccinated among the Hispanic American families living in the area.”

Aguirre said her fear was that one of the virus variants would take hold in the area before enough people were vaccinated.

“I don’t want to mirror Europe,” she said. “They opened and then they shut down again because of the variants. I think the difference is that we have vaccines and we have time.”