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By Miriam Raftery

May 12, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – Supervisor Dianne Jacob hosted a virtual town hall last Thursday along with El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and Poway Mayor Steve Vaus. They provided updates on the COVID-19 pandemic locally, addressed ideas for  more businesses, churches and other paces to reopen, and fielded questions submitted by constituents.

Health updates and testing

Supervisor Jacob opened with a “shout out to all the nurses” on National Nurses Day, thanking them for their efforts to help COVID-19 patients. 

“What we know is this virus is highly contagious. It spreads very easily,” she said, adding that to date, there is no vaccine or drug proven to treat the disease. But she added, “Here’s what we know that’s positive: the mitigation measure, the safety measures put in place are working.”

As of Wednesday, San Diego County has had 4,319 cases and 158 deaths, with 882 hospitalizations due to COVID-19. Over 55,000 tests have been done, double the number since a town hall meeting two weeks earlier. Hospital capacity is 6,000 beds with 3,600 occupied, of which 363 are due to COVID-19.  The goal is to test over 5,000 people daily. There’s capacity for 3,500 but at most 2600 have been tested in any one day so far, so there’s a gap to fill. Some people are not showing up for tests, Jacob says. 

Tests are available at hospitals, community clinics, labs and the stadium with a doctor referral or call 211 if you don’t have a doctor. The state has also opened three free test sites including Grossmont College in El Cajon; you can get a free test by appointment by calling 888-634-1123.

Reopening the county

Supervisors this week adopted a framework to reopen. Jacob encouraged businesses, churches, recreational facilities and others shut down to read the criteria and put together a plan to reopen, even if your facility is  not in phase 2.  “Send it to my office,” Jacob says.  She will forward to Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego’s public health official,who must approve any plans and in turn, submit those plans to the Governor, who has the final authority during the public health emergency. You can find guidelines at including a business safety check list.   

Supervisors plan a special meeting next week to take action toward loosening restrictions and have asked the Governor to allow San Diego to have total control over decisions on reopening locally, but it remains to be seen if that will be granted.

Mayor Wells says El Cajon has 228 COVID-19 cases, of which 165 are in nursing homes, which skews the overall picture.

He offered cautious praise for Governor Gavin Newsom. “I’m encouraged by what’s happening at the state level now. I actually think Governor Newsom has done a very good job acting quickly to try and keep us all safe.” But he adds, “I do think the time has come to allow a little balance and scale back some regulations that don’t make a lot of sense…Hopefully he will do just that.”

Wells' background is in mental health.  “I worry about the body count with COVID-19 but also body counts for people suffering from depression and anxiety. We don’t know yet how many suicides, or how many will become addicted to alcohol or drugs, or fall into domestic violence” due to the stay-home orders, he noted  He stressed that it’s important to stay safe from the virus but also bring back some balance. “I’m seeing people fray around the edges.”

Vaus says business represents jobs. That’s why Poway passed an Emergency Assistance Recovery loan program using $2 million from reserves as a hand up, not a handout to help businesses. He says it’s had a “tremendous responses” with some funs already distributed.  Some business owners who had loans approved later said they didn’t need them since other loans came through. “That’s the spirit,” said Vaus.  Poway kept most parks open and has recently been able to reopen Blue Sky, Lake Poway including the trial to Potato Chip Rock and Iron Mountain, thanks to the state. 

Vaus also started the website for people to print a handout for neighbors offering them help such as picking up groceries.  He says if he had a magic wand, he would have “more local control” over reopening decisions.

Jacob observed, “Out of every crisis, and we’ve seen it in fires too, comes some good--people helping people.”

Questions and answers

Taking temperatures at work: Asked about a requirement for employers to take employees temperatures daily, all three politicians voiced skepticism. Jacob says she isn’t sure that’s practical and said the county needs to “push back on the thermometer issue.”  Vaus said he wants to be sure the rules are the same for mom and pop businesses as for large ones such s Walmart and Costco. Wells noted that the virus can be carried for two weeks before anyone shows symptom, so taking temperatures would have only limited value. He wants people to take responsibility not to go to work if they have a fever or other symptoms.

Opening churches:  Asked parameters to reopen places of worship, Jacob says these are in phase 3. But she urges churches to submit a plan for reopening safely. “The goal is not to spread the virus,” she said, but notes that churches are essential for meeting many needs. Wells said, “I’m a big believer in freedom of religion, but it’s also not a good idea for people to be gathering in large groups.” He suggests allowing drive-up church services, but says the Governor so far has not allowed this. Vaus also wants drive-up religious services. “We don’t want this to explode again, but we also need to make sure constituents are getting spiritual needs met.”

Little League: Asked when Little League might resume, Jacob said she doesn’t have the answer but encouraged sports groups to submit plans that would allow for social distancing and other safety rules. Wells quipped, “I’ve been paying social distancing with baseball all my life – with the coach putting me in the outfield.” On a more serious note, he said that with baseball, concerts, and churches “It’s got to get to a point where it’s safe.”

Masks: Jacob emphasized that N-95 masks should not be worn by the public, but saved for healthcare workers in close contact with contagious COVID-19 patients. Cloth masks or other face coverings should be worn when within six feet of others in public places, in stores and on public transit per county orders, but do not need to be worn when walking, jogging or doing other exercises if you’re not within six feet of someone else. Wells noted that masks can provide a false sense of confidence and are “not a magic barrier.”  He notes that much of our medical gear comes from China and wants to see more manufacturing of medical equipment done in the U.S. as we emerge from this pandemic.

Libraries: Asked when they can reopen, Jacob says she wants a plan to reopen libraries, noting that if bookstores can be reopened, she hopes libraries can as well. Vaus noted, “A lot of people rely on libraries for internet access and on hot days as cool zones.” He wants to seek reopening libraries done quickly.

Parameters to reopen businesses:  Asked why things are opening up with COVID-19 cases and deaths still rising, Jacob said the increase in cases is partly due to more testing and that the death rate is relatively low for a county with 3.6 million people.  About 6 to 7 percent of those tested show positive and hospital capacity is not overwhelmed, a critical factor. 

Wells notes, “Many people are suffering…Some people have no idea how they will come back from this financially. People are worried about losing homes or losing businesses they‘ve just started, or businesses that have been in their family for generations..We have to mitigate that…but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about human life.”  He wants to see more efforts to allow businesses to reopen provided this is not done recklessly, noting that deaths from COVID-19 are not the only losses to be considered.

Jacob noted that if people don’t feel safe going into a business, they won’t go there.

Virtual graduations:  Santee Mayor John Minto asked for help to get the Santee Drive-In Theatre reopened perhaps with people bringing their own refreshments. The Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District has submitted a plan to hold a graduation ceremony at the drive-in, the only such facility in our region.  Mayor Wells said, “I think we should find a way to make that happen,” noting students have put in a lot of time and effort in their education and deserve this recognition.

Rodeos:  Asked if team roping or barrel roping events might be allowed, Vaus said he needs to doublecheck but would like to see folks at the rodeo grounds again.

Education: Regarding concerns about plans to help children catch up on lost learning, Jacob said that’s a matter to address with school boards or local schools.  Vaus said parents now have a new appreciation of teachers.

Wineries and breweries: Jacob encouraged wineries to submit plans to eventually reopen tasting rooms using a safety plan and supervisors’ guidelines. “I think now more than ever, people would enjoy going to tasting room if they can socially distance and enjoy a glass of wine,” she said.  One of the other participants pointed out that a high percentage of craft breweries are at risk of going under, which would mean thousands of local jobs lost; these could also submit a proposed reopening plan.

Power balance between state and local control:  Jacob noted that under the Governor’s orders, counties can issue orders that are more restrictive, but not less.

Mayor Wells noted, “A lot of people are very concerned about a power grab of some kind.” He said Mayor Minto wrote a paper clarifying that the Governor has this power due to a perfect storm of a public health crisis. While legislation could address this later, he says, “Governor Newsom has the legal right and obligation to do what he is doing, and we need to approach him in a helpful way and ask him to consider our petitions.  But we need to back away from this idea that something nefarious is going on.”

Jacob added, “I agree. I fact the Governor is listening to us. He called San Diego a model for the state.” She noted that when the Governor was considering ordering all beaches closed due to crowds in Orange County, “I sent off a letter at 12:30 a..m. that said this is not fair. Don’t punish all the kids just because of one. He responded the next day and e changed the order only to close down the beaches in Orange County…I know he is looking to San Diego for leadership and we need to work with the Governor and help the Governor to make those decisions. Those are pretty tough decision coming out of the state. Conspiracy theories – that’s not helpful…I think he wants to do the right thing and it’s tough when you’re trying to balance a public health crisis on top of an economic crisis; we all want to reopen and make sure that people stay safe.”

Wells concluded, “All of your local officials care about you and your lives. We are  meeting daily in El Cajon talking about how we can mitigate some of the hardships you are facing.”

He offered, “If you feel like you have no hope and terrible things may happen and you don’t know how to get out of it, I want you to contact me or contact the city,” adding that he and city leaders have already aided others to get help to save their businesses, get food or other resources. “I will personally get back to you, no matter what,” the El Cajon Mayor pledged, “and we’ll talk it through.”

Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.

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