Officials hear public input on shutdown

Hundreds tune in, offer input for Town Hall on COVID-19

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Officials  hear  public  input on shutdownThe practical considerations of re-opening the economy — as well as a philosophical quandary about state authority and application of lockdown orders — highlighted a two-hour Town Hall meeting Wednesday evening to discuss impacts of relaxing restrictions aimed at reducing COVID-19 outbreaks.

City officials noted that the purpose of the meeting was not to make a decision, but to collect input that would be forwarded to an ad-hoc committee established by the Kern County Board of Supervisors to provide guidance and advocacy on how small businesses can adapt — both during and after — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders prohibiting operations of “non-essential” business.

“First and foremost, we are not here tonight to make any changes or go against the county or state,” said Councilman Scott Hayman, who was appointed as the local representative on that committee.

Newsom has outlined a four-stage plan to reopen the economy, although so far no hard dates have been established for the timeline.

The first phase involves building out testing and contact tracing abilities, the ability to ensure protection for healthcare workers and a sustained reduction in outbreaks.

Phase two triggers a gradual reopening of lower-risk workplaces including retail, manufacturing and office spaces. However, those openings will come with adaptations such as maintained social distancing, enhanced sanitization and curbside service options. That stage is potentially “just weeks away.”

Phase three involves the reopening of salons, theaters and churches. The fourth and final phase will reopen large-scale events such as concerts and sporting events.

While the governor has hinted at potentially allowing discretion by sector and geographical location, nothing concrete has been announced (see related story, this edition).

In accordance with social-distancing guidelines, the Town Hall meeting was streamed online, and public participation was allowed only through calling-in or e-mailing input. City Clerk Ricca Charlon reportedly received more than 150 e-mailed comments. Hayman said those would be considered by officials, but not read into the record.

Another 26 citizens called in to express their questions and concerns. Most of those callers were business owners and other workers who have been unable to make a living during the shut-down. A significant number of those also did not qualify for any of the loans, grants, unemployment or other financial aid offered through the government to offset losses.

One of the common themes was also the seeming inequity of what constitutes “essential” services. While big-box stores like Walmart and Home Depot have been allowed to continue, store fronts offering more specialized services have been prohibited from opening — even if increased distancing, hygiene and safety protocols are followed.

Stylist Greg Rickets of Grego’s Salon said that individuals in the salon industry are already required to complete training equivalent to those undergone by nurses in order to provide the sanitation protocols necessary to protect their consumers. Stylists are bound, licensed and trusted by the state — but still cannot legally practice in order to make a living.

Several business owners noted that they cannot survive for the potentially months-long wait before they are allowed to return to operation.

“How can we loosen and lift some of these restrictions?” asked Pam Grattan, noting that the economy was under serious threat of a complete crash without some hope of a return toward normalcy.

Carol Schneider said she had been “a consumer of commodities for a while,” but is scrambling to find food for herself now. She wanted to know the status of local access to federal and state programs to feed seniors.

City Manager Ron Strand said he is working with local restaurants to offer the one-meal-per-day for eligible senior citizens, but noted that the city is required to foot the bill until funding comes through.

Ridgecrest Regional Hospital CEO Jim Suver, who was on hand to address health care concerns, noted that the hospital aids several private efforts to help feed seniors through the crisis, and requested Schneider contact RRH to find additional assistance.

“I understand the plight of seniors, which is why we are trying to support these programs.”

Matthew Rael of Ridgecrest Cycle Park noted that his organization is bleeding out paying ongoing expenses without an option to collect revenue. He added that other tracks around California have re-opened with additional distancing guidelines in place.

According to Rael, his landlord was told that he would be fined by Kern County Public Health if they resumed operations. Strand said he would get in touch with the county to find out if a resolution was possible.

Multiple business owners asked for guidance on how they could modify their operations to resume service — each citing the financial burdens that have come with closures.

Others asked why Ridgecrest was going along with the governor’s orders, when our reported positives are comparatively low.

Suver agreed that test results are low, but noted that nearby communities are not. “Part of our concern in opening up too early is allowing the risk of infection from those other communities.”

Suver noted that studies of the coronavirus show that outbreaks can happen so rapidly that attempts to contain them can be applied too late to be effective.

He also pointed out that all six positive results were identified in patients who had traveled to areas where the illness is more prevalent. Anything that triggers an increase in travel can put Ridgecrest at a higher risk of the kinds of surges observed in other areas.

Suver also stressed that, in order to pursue a re-opening locally, Ridgecrest really needed an increased ability to test. Out of some 35,000 population, some 200 have been tested.

“We have to be very careful about very small sample sizes.” That said, RRH hopes to begin offering serology testing in May.

Chris Grey of the IWV Baseball Association asked whether city parks are closed. Strand noted that they are still closed to team sports, but individual families are still allowed to use parks so long as they are not congregating with those outside of their own households.

Grey was one of many callers to suggest that Newsom’s advisement is not necessarily applicable to a small, remote community like ours.

“We understand,” said Mayor Peggy Breeden. “But we are bound by what the governor says. We cannot close or open ourselves. We follow the county, and the county follows the governor. If we had our choice, you might see a little differently.”

“I’ve heard a lot tonight about how we can’t do anything about what the governor says,” stated an unidentified caller.

“You people sitting on that council right now have been told and known in your hearts — you know it’s morally wrong.”

He said that our community does not have “any constituency to our Democrat governor.” He asked the city to “just say you can’t enforce it. And let Americans be Americans. Let Americans be free. Let people hide in their houses … but if they want to go out let them go out. This is our town — we voted for you guys to protect us and our interests … I wish you would step up and be the mayor and council people voted for you to be.”

Strand noted that the council has no authority to enforce the law. That task falls to the police department which is bound to uphold the law. Newsom’s directives are legally founded and the only lawful way to reverse them is through a challenge in the court system.

“The council can have feelings about it but we have rules we have to follow,” he said.

The purpose of the meeting is to gather information that can be sent to higher levels of government. “Hopefully we can open in a manner that is safe for everyone. There are people who feel we should be locked down even more.”

A subsequent caller said that she would like to see Ridgecrest take the approach of the six counties who were citing reasons to justify reopening.

She said that wanting to be compliant is a factor, but she would rather see us make a case for reopening without overtly breaking the law.

Others asked how they can help the suffering business sector

Police Chief Jed McLaughlin said that one way is to choose businesses you already support and buy gift certificates — which offers them a revenue stream immediately and a way for the public to redeem service at a later date.

“A significant part of our community has not had to go without a paycheck,” said Strand. “There have been a lot of complaints about the lack of diversity in restaurant options. If you don’t support them now, there will be even less diversity when it is over.”

A caller who only identified herself as “Lauren,” noted that she was a teenager and expressed concern about the overreach in government. Strand and McLaughlin outlined the legal parameters under which they were bound to operate.

Lauren also asked what people could do in terms of advocacy.

“We are going to have other pandemics in your lifetime,” said Suver. “We need to learn from this experience because this can never happen this way again, the way we have people worried about feeding their families.”

Suver said that the U.S. has made mistakes in how it has handled the crisis. We are the richest nation in the world, and yet healthcare providers have been unable to procure adequate testing and supplies to protect their communities.

“This is why we are listening to some very sad stories about people leaving our community, or not knowing what they are going to do. We have to better prepare for next time. Because it will happen again,” said Suver.

He also referenced the points in the governor’s plan that can help ensure that safeguards are in place to protect the vulnerable during a reopening.

“I think we are all concerned about getting small businesses back open,” said Strand. “We are limited, but we have a little bit of power in the sense that we can make sure our voice is heard.”

“This is one of the biggest challenges we have faced, even in my lifetime,” said Suver. However, he revealed that there were some positive aspects to report. None of the positive cases in Ridgecrest have been hospitalized — each patient was quarantined at home. The supply chain difficulties throughout the crisis have begun to resolve.

“At one point we had less than a five-day supply of some items,” he said. “Things are starting to open up on a federal and state level.”

And test availability appears to be improving, as well.

“I really do appreciate the support of the city,” said Suver. “We did make a difference in slowing things down. Now that we are beginning to see the statistics, an organized reopening, and continued monitoring of the results, will be important.”

Strand also thanked Suver for working with the city. “He has helped us make some common-sense decisions at the city level.”

Hayman promised to hold more meetings and keep the public notified.

Pictured: Scott Hayman, Ridgecrest City Councilmember and local representative for the Kern County Reopening Committee. — News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-05-01