County supervisors suspending meetings until April amid pandemic

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RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Riverside County supervisors voted unanimously today to cancel their remaining meetings this month and resume meetings on April 7, after which they intend to convene regular business every two weeks, as a precaution during the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

“We really need to adhere to the spirit and essence of social distancing,” Supervisor Chuck Washington said. “It’s just hard to do that every week.”

Supervisor Jeff Hewitt concurred, saying the correct approach would be to “minimize contact” and “go to our little bunker” to reduce exposure risks.

Supervisors Kevin Jeffries and Karen Spiegel initially opposed the revised schedule, worrying that it would send the wrong signal to constituents, stoking fear, and also hamper the Board of Supervisors’ ability to conduct business.

However, when board Chairman Manuel Perez indicated that he favored Hewitt’s and Washington’s position, the two holdouts relented and joined the majority.

The board’s tentative meeting schedule for regular Tuesday business going forward is April 7, April 21, May 5 and May 19. The supervisors’ calendar was already dark for the day after Memorial Day, and they’re expected to announce whether the biweekly schedule will continue sometime before then.

Hewitt noted that special emergency sessions could be called at anytime, on any day.

The board implemented social distancing precautions recommended by health officials, limiting the number of people admitted into the chamber by marking seats that had to remain vacant — and displacing themselves on the dais so that at least six feet was between chairs.

Washington went one step farther and relocated to his office to self- isolate, citing the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines regarding seniors taking extra measures to safeguard against potential exposure to COVID-19 transmission.

Washington spoke to his colleagues via his office phone throughout the meeting.

No public presentations involving groups were permitted by the board, and that is expected to continue under the new protocols stemming from COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus — and the local health emergency, which went into effect a week ago and can only be rescinded by board action.

Jeffries pointed out that the upcoming meetings will be longer, potentially lasting all day, because more agenda items will have to be packed into each meeting. Budget hearings are slated to begin in June and typically require several consecutive daily sessions to iron out money matters. It was unclear how those would be handled.

County Chief Executive Officer George Johnson recommended the partial closure of “non-essential” — or non-public safety — county facilities to “limit contact with the public.” He said some county workers could telecommute, carrying out work from home while operations are scaled back.

Perez and Jeffries questioned how such steep limits on access would impair permitting, licensing and other processes, but Johnson did not seem concerned.

“We’re prepared to implement this tomorrow,” he said.

Perez requested that before any moves are made, the CEO provide a list of proposed building closures, which Johnson promised to submit by Wednesday morning.