As the spread of the coronavirus outbreak began to inch closer to home, city officials from Temecula to Menifee to Lake Elsinore to San Jacinto, began to gather teams to come up with a plan to lead their cities going forward.
In what seemed to be a whirlwind of changing information, southwest Riverside County cities began to issue statements and press releases canceling events and informing the public.
When California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay at home order to the state’s nearly 40 million residents Thursday, March 19, it was time for those cities to take action.
To date, every city hall in the immediate region is closed to the public and each city has declared a local emergency and mayors and city officials are taking to social media to speak directly to their constituents about what those cities are offering during the crisis.
“I do think that is my role, especially, is the chief information liaison to the city,” Temecula Mayor James “Stew” Stewart said. “I feel that’s what people want from me is they want me to be the one giving them the information that they either need or that will calm them down. And so I’m trying to be that. I’m trying to be that person who is not going to go off the deep end and try to scare them. But by the same token, provide all the information that Riverside County Health is providing.
“There’s a lot of things we as a city can’t do that Riverside County Health and the governor can do. I think that’s what a lot of people are getting frustrated with me about was, ‘Why aren’t you shutting everything down?’ I don’t have that authority, that’s why.”
“As city employees and leadership, a lot of people don’t understand that we also took an oath as disaster service workers,” Temecula city manager Aaron Adams said. “While we’re not front-line first responders, we do have a responsibility as disaster service workers to step in during times of emergency, which this obviously is. We tabletop, we liaison with agencies outside these walls. What role do we play? I think as the mayor mentioned, it’s our role to project calm. I think it’s our role to provide accurate and timely information for our community. I think it’s our role to remain closely engaged with Riverside County Public Health as the lead agency on this incident. I think it’s important that we remain responsible in our business decisions as a municipality.”
Lake Elsinore city manager Grant Yates explained the process of declaring a city emergency and how they go about it.
“Emergency operation plans for cities are considered and all hazard and public health related issues are covered under the plan,” Yates said. “The major difference with this emergency is that the county’s public health agency is the lead agency, and they have wide powers to address public health and safety issues during this type of emergency. Each city is in the process of declaring an emergency which also provides additional powers and allows the organization to more effectively react to the changing conditions relating to the emergency.
“The process required to declare an emergency is different in every city but most allow the city manager to sign a disaster proclamation and then the city council must ratify the proclamation within a certain amount of time. In our case, I signed the proclamation and then the city council will consider adopting it (Tuesday, March 24,) as our ordinance requires city council approval within seven days. The Disaster Declaration allows for future reimbursement of costs and relaxes certain ordinances (purchasing rules) and authorizes certain police powers in order to more effectively deal with the emergency.”
Lake Elsinore Mayor Brian Tisdale talked about the need for the city to act.
“It is absolutely important for the city to be proactive,” Tisdale said. “And so, for the city of Lake Elsinore, who over the last year and a half, two years, have dealt with fires, floods, a poppy bloom we didn’t ask for, we’ve had our share of disasters and our community has gone through a lot with evacuations and everything else.
“We have to follow the lead of the public health department when it comes to closures and social distancing things and the advice that the public health department gives because we don’t have the ability to do any of those things. However, the city has taken a lead in ourselves before the public health department even started issuing guidance to cities as far as we ourselves looked at our own continuity of operations plans to ensure that the city can do things and put things in place so that the city can continue to provide services to the residents that you know, we need to serve.”
Tisdale talked about the city allowing a significant amount of city workers to work from home, allowing public works department workers the ability to dispatch from home so they don’t have to come into the facilities before heading out, and closing the senior center while formulating a plan to provide meals to seniors who need them.
“The city is taking a leadership role within the city in areas that we have some control over to actually make sure that we can still function as a city,” Tisdale said. “If folks get sick, it’s not going to impact the entire city. The city can still do everything that we need to do from day to day: permits, if that’s required. Building plans, if that’s required. And we’re going to do some of that remotely, people can email them or scan them to us and we can approve. We can continue to fill potholes if necessary. Keep our parks open; keep our bathrooms clean in our parks. We want people to use the parks as long as they practice social distancing and things like that.”
Murrieta Mayor Gene Wunderlich said the city is doing its best to answer as many questions and continue to provide services crucial to the residents they serve, including local businesses that are facing a tough time and are looking for solutions to survive.
“Our recommendations to these restaurants and retailers and other folks is what’s coming down from the state, because the city’s not in a position to. No. 1, we can’t dictate to landlords,” Wunderlich said. “We can’t pay people’s rent and so forth, that just doesn’t happen. What’s coming down from the state are mandates to relax collection enforcement, to put a halt to foreclosures and evictions and provide relief from the Small Business Administration. We continue to provide that link to the SBA for the businesses so that they can get an application and give some relief on this. I think landlords are, are for the most part, are going to be pretty understanding because they’re all in the same boat.
“It’s just difficult pretty much across the board for everybody,” he said. “I think that the city’s position is really to provide access to those resources that are already in place. Some of the questions we’re getting are pushing out to Riverside County Public Health and Cameron Kaiser up there, people are asking, ‘Isn’t he grossly exceeding the limits of his authority with some of these mandates?’ But right now, that’s kind of the way it is. We’re seeing this in Los Angeles County and Orange County now and a lot of places are doing this.”
Wildomar Mayor Dustin Nigg said the city is making adjustments and pauses on city ordinances in order to help local businesses stay alive.
“I look at small government and local government as the closest to the fight,” Wildomar Mayor Dustin Nigg said. “If there are things that we can do to be responsive to the community and its needs, I wholeheartedly want to do that. We’re looking at what we can do as a city to help from the common good.
“A concern for everybody in the valley, probably nationwide, is really the service sector and the service industry that is being really affected right now. All the restaurants are operating in a very limited capacity. That’s a challenge in itself. What can we do? How can we get creative? I have Kimberly Davidson, our economic development director, working with every one of our businesses here finding methods that are possible, they are getting creative with marketing, etc. They are finding ways to keep things moving, but it’s definitely a challenge,” he said.
Menifee city manager Armando Villa talked about the kind of communication the city is receiving from the public and local businesses.
“We are getting a lot of calls from people that run businesses,” Villa said. “They say, ‘I think I’m an essential business. I sell ice cream. People are gonna need ice cream.’ Well, no, you’re not an essential service. We mean businesses that are essential to keep the economy going. People don’t need to eat ice cream, but if you work for a grocery store, if you work for a gas station or if you work for a telecommunication company or if you’re a cop, those are essential services. We expect you to continue to work. We’re gonna need that infrastructure to continue to keep going. By about Monday you’ll see a different tone and then people start realizing this is very serious and everyone needs to pitch in.”
Villa explained that this emergency is different from others that most city managers have prepared for many times over.
“In this case, this emergency is very different from anything any one of us has ever seen,” he said. “You know when we do emergency preparedness, we often have very little time to react, and there’s a whole bunch of history now that we can go back to and read about such as an earthquake, a fire. A train wreck or some kind of immediate danger. We do things so that we can set up camp really fast. And in this case, it was very different.
“In my city, we started to become concerned, right about the last week of February and the first week of March. We’ve been in communication almost on a weekly basis with state and county officials on conference calls, receiving information about what they knew at the time. We sort of participated through conference calls, but primarily to listen and to gauge what was coming. Obviously, this situation is highly fluid and things are changing,” Villa said.
Wunderlich echoed Villa’s statement.
“We can answer as many questions as we have answers to and then direct them to the people who may have better answers or may have more current answers,” Wunderlich said. “Because this is changing not only daily, but hourly. That’s the best you can do sometimes, and the city certainly has a plan in place for disaster relief and you look at things like floods and earthquakes and some of the things that you might anticipate can occur. This is way out there in left field.
“A lot of people say, ‘What are you doing? Are you treating people?’ No, but we are doing, indirectly, a lot of things that the governor and the county are asking us to do. They are telling us, ‘You, local guys, get boots on the ground. We need you to protect your residents.’ And when they say that they expect every city manager and every city in California to go out there and carry out those mandates. We’re doing that. So when you say local government can’t do much, we are doing about 80% of what was being asked of everybody in California to do,” he said.
The role of individuals in local government is limited by their respective roles, but each feels they have a personal responsibility to the constituents they serve.
“There’s a social responsibility component versus being an alarmist,” Adams said. “You’re seeing these conflicts go on in the private sector and government. We’re making a lot of operational decisions that affect local government but we’re balancing all of that as well. Because we have some carved out exemptions, but at the same time we have social responsibilities and how we conduct public meetings and things of that nature.”
“In my opinion, we’re just being responsible and trying not to be alarmist,” Stewart said. “We’re trying to keep everybody calm in a situation when it seems like the media and a lot of social pressures want you to be fearful. They want you to go storm the grocery stores.
“In my opinion, that’s all I believe the city should be doing is being responsible with what orders are coming down from on high. It’s really not our job, in my opinion, to supersede what they’re saying. They’re basically our authority figures and a chain of command is in place, and they have a higher chain in our command,” he said.
Tisdale shared advice and the message coming from the city to reassure residents that they are working on their behalf to stabilize the community.
“It’s important that we listen to reputable sources, make sure we are getting it from the right people, the Riverside County Public Health Department or the CDC, follow what they say,” Tisdale said. “We will get through this. Keep your kids home, tell all young adults they’ve got to stay home; they’ve got to practice social distancing.
“The city’s going to do what we can do statutorily within our realm to try to keep the city functioning to meet the needs. We’re gonna make sure our police and fire services are doing their jobs. And then also help direct people in their suffering for whatever that may be, providing them information or resources where they can get help if they need it,” he said.
Adams offered up six things Temecula is focusing on to help the community get through this time.
“Our consistent messaging right now, safer is better,” Adams said. “Keeping to your immediate groups and social network. Only essential services. Isolate, if you can avoid going into work. Use 211, not 911, as a resource. And don’t forget the importance of mental health, although practice social distancing, nobody has to be alone. These are just some solid, practical advice that we can all collectively push out there.”
“Our job now is to make sure that we do our part to make sure that everybody knows that this is not necessarily a martial law at this point, but it could be one,” Villa said. “And when trying to encourage everybody to do their part. We keep telling everybody there’s no vaccine for the state. You have the medicine in your hands: it’s preventative social distancing. Wash your hands, practice responsibility and hygiene that is the best cure right now. We’re trying to let people know that as drivers of a city.”
Nigg said he is continuing to push a message of cooperation with his city.
“We just want to remind everybody that empathy and compassion are the words of the day,” Nigg said. “We’re all in this together. The only way we’re going to get through this and smoothly is to work together, add that sense of community. We’ll come out better on the back end – a much stronger, close-knit community.”
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.