AZCentral: Group mourns 15,000 Arizonans dead as part of push for national COVID-19 memorial day

A small group of people gathered in Tempe Monday afternoon to honor the more than 15,000 Arizonans who have died due to COVID-19 as part of their push for a nationwide memorial day for victims of the disease.

In the courtyard of the Arizona Heritage Center at Papago Park, Joyce Bailey, a COVID-19 survivor, crooned "Amazing Grace" against a backdrop of flowers arranged in a heart. Around 40 photographs showing the smiling faces of loved ones who died due to COVID-19 complications also dotted the courtyard.

The event was hosted by the local chapter of Marked by COVID, a national advocacy group for people who have been affected by COVID-19, as part of their nationwide COVID Memorial Day campaign. Kristin Urquiza, who grew up in Phoenix but lives in San Francisco, launched the organization last summer following the death of her father to the disease.

"Exactly one year ago, the 15,980 Arizonans who died from COVID were alive. March is the month that started to change," said Urquiza in an email to The Arizona Republic. "It's essential we take time to remember and mourn."

Attendees grieve loved ones lost to COVID-19

Attendees took the mic to share their stories of losing family and friends.

"Memories. That's all we have is memories," said Linda Washington, whose ex-husband and best friend, Robert Washington, died in June. The 68-year-old caught COVID-19 after returning to work at Lone Butte Casino following the expiration of Arizona's first executive order shuttering businesses.

Mario Martinez remembered his uncle Faustino Sandoval, a 92-year-old veteran of World War II who died July 1, through tears.

"The worst part is that there are 500,000 families that have endured what we have," Martinez said.

He also tied his uncle's death to policies of Gov. Doug Ducey and former President Donald Trump, who he claimed "directly impaired the ability of our country to deal with this."

Tara Krebbs, the local organizer of Tempe's memorial whose father died of complications due to COVID-19 in the summer, then held a moment of silence.

"I did want to take a minute to hold space for everyone that is marked by COVID, because we all are in one way or another," Krebbs said.

The memorial included a digital display inside the center's auditorium created by the Floral Heart Project, which supplied the heart-shaped floral arrangements to Monday's local Marked by COVID events. The projection visualized every death to COVID-19 in Arizona as a single petal floating in and out of frame, with every two seconds representing a day of the last 15 months. By the end of the time-lapse, petals covered nearly every inch of the screen.

Organization hopes for legislation to deem nationwide official memorial day

Marked by COVID hopes for the 75 events organized across the country Monday to spur legislation as the nation approaches the anniversary of the World Health Organization first declaring a pandemic and surpasses the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths.

According to the organization, more than 50 mayors in 24 states have passed local ordinances to officially proclaim the first Monday of March as COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day. Among them are mayors in ten Arizona cities — including Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and others in the Valley.

On Friday, Rep. Greg Stanton in collaboration with Marked by COVID introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives aiming to federally recognize the date as a day of remembrance.

"Their successes demonstrate this is so much larger than me or my Dad," Urquiza said of Tempe's event and other memorials throughout the country. "This is about the growing movement of people marked by COVID-19 who are determined to ensure that we never forget the unvarnished truth of what happened and why, so we never make the same mistakes that led to the needless death of more than half a million people."