EL CENTRO — Amid the ongoing chaos surrounding COVID-19 across the nation and locally, the El Centro City Council appears to be the first Imperial County city to go on the record with declaring a state of emergency.
Mayor Efrain Silva explained to those gathered in the audience at the March 17 council meeting that it was a difficult day, but it was necessary to take action and put into place the practice of social distancing.
The council voted 4-0 to authorize Resolution 20-14, declaring a local emergency over the COVID-19 coronavirus. Council member Edgard Garcia was absent.
The resolution, which went into effect March 18, designated City Manager Marcela Piedra as city emergency office center director. Piedra pointed out the potency of the virus may increase risk to city staff and residents in the coming weeks.
The resolution gives the city powers to override existing city policies and procedures if required to ensure residents’ health and safety, Piedra said.
The Imperial County Board of Supervisors ratified previously declared states of emergency regarding COVID-19 during its meeting March 10. County health officer Stephen Munday instituted a 23-point health order that included requiring social distancing and business closures to take effect March 20 through March 31 during a press conference March 17.
The Calexico City Council was to meet March 18, but it did not have such a resolution on its agenda. Also, the Brawley City Council cancelled its regular meeting March 17.
ECRMC CEO reassures city on right track
El Centro Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Adolphe Edward went before the council to provide an update on the hospital’s efforts to deal with COVID-19, including providing a status on the county’s only two positive cases.
He said both are recovering. Edward also reported that the prior two weeks saw 11 suspected cases test negatively.
“Eighty percent of suspected COVID-19 cases ultimately recover and are discovered to have been the flu, not COVID-19, ” Edward told the council. “But with school systems closed, it’s important to monitor children and they should not gather in groups of more than 10.”
He went on that not everybody needs to be tested but only cases where there is evidence of clinical criteria for COVID-19 symptoms. ECRMC has already set up triage just outside of the hospital for suspected COVID cases.
The City Council voted to cancel all city events through April 7, which is the date of the next council meeting when the council will re-assess whether to maintain or relax social distancing guidelines.
Cancelled events include the Spring Fling & Flick at Bucklin Park, the Splish Splash Census 2020 event at the aquatic center, the mobile Vietnam veterans’ memorial at Bucklin Park and other events.
Edward told the council he felt much safer if gatherings were canceled until the first full week of May, including the those at the aquatic center, skate park and MLK Jr. Sports Complex.
However, council member Jason Jackson questioned that reasoning.
“To close open space parks is not a reality,” said Jackson. “The step to take is education. Let’s have handwashing stations installed. We are a city and must provide essential services. Keep the skate park and aquatic center open for now and give recreation opportunities for our youth.”
As a result, council decided to close: the MLK Jr. Center, main library and branch, the adult center, Conrad Harrison Sports Center and the splash pad, 375 S. First St.
Meanwhile, all parks, athletic fields (no organized team practice), skate park and the aquatic center (which had 1,040 visitors in March) will remain open but modifications regarding the aquatic center remain in the works.
In three separate votes, it was a 4-0 decision to close the library and adult centers, and 4-0 to leave open the parks. However, the council split 3-1 on the skate park and aquatic center, with council member Tomas Oliva opposing out of concern for the elderly.
Housing the Homeless
In other business, Veronica Rodriguez, director of the Imperial County Social Services Department, made a presentation on behalf of the Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council to explain a number of proposals care council has recently submitted for funding.
There were 13 projects pending with the care council, but Rodriguez focused on a proposal to build 24 low-income apartments in Heber. The Continuum of Care Council already received a community block grant from California through the Homeless Emergency Aid Program for $4.6 million and Rodriguez requested $2.6 million. She explained two categories would be eligible: the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.
City Council Member Cheryl Viegas Walker raised concerns that what is needed first is a tiered program to move the chronically homeless from off the street to, first, a shelter, then second, transitional housing. Third, Walker said, they should be referred to low-income apartments.
She explained the homeless must first stabilize at a shelter where they can detox, and only after moving to transitional housing, should they qualify for wrap-around services, such as medication, job training and job placement.
Walker explained her biggest concerns was how the construction of the 24 apartments help the chronically homeless without stabilizing them first with an address to get benefits then move them in increment steps to greater independence.
“Having heard her (Rodriguez) explanation of vetting the homeless, I have serious concerns how she’ll move them into low-income apartments,” Walker said. “I don’t think they’ll get many qualified for benefits without first linking their underlying problems through successful transitions to a gradual move to a better living space, and then they can demonstrate an ability to live more independently.”
There was no action on this agenda item, but Rodriguez was invited back to the next council meeting to re-examine options.
This story is featured in the Mar 19, 2020 e-Edition.