By JOHN MILLER &
Despite growing concern about Merced County’s COVID-19 health directive and restrictions placed on residents and businesses to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread, local elected leaders say they have little choice but to look up to Sacramento for guidance on how to navigate through a devastating financial meltdown while still keeping people safe.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to detail new guidelines this week after already announcing that some retail sectors (including bookstores, clothing shops, sporting goods stores and flower shops) can open up again as long as their local officials give the OK, and business owners implement safety measures, such as having workers wear masks and allowing customers to shop under social distance limits.
Restaurants and hospitality services “in rural counties” were also added to the governor’s list.
Three members of the Board of Supervisors told the Times that a special meeting to discuss and perhaps take action on the revised guidelines might happen as soon as Friday. Nevertheless, Newsom pointed out this week that counties can keep their COVID-19 health restrictions in place and do not have to come into compliance with the state order.
During this state of emergency, Supervisor Lloyd Pareira admitted: “The health officer gets to call the shots.”
“The goal of the Public Health Department is to keep people safe and stop the spread of the virus,” Pareira pointed out, “unfortunately they don’t really take into account the business side of it and the fallout of the financial crisis.”
Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, the board’s chairman, said “opening up” is a hard decision, but it’s more difficult to ignore that “95 percent of the emails and calls I get are about loosening restrictions on businesses and people suffering because they are out of work.”
Late last week, Merced Mayor Mike Murphy sent a letter to Newsom urging the governor to reopen businesses in rural California who are willing and able to abide by safety guidelines. Murphy pointed out that California is too big for a “one size fits all” approach.
The mayor also echoed a point that’s been made by many business owners and residents through emails to leaders and posts on social media sites.
“Thankfully, the early worries of an overrun healthcare system have not materialized in Merced,” Murphy wrote. “Many days, there are not any hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Merced or Merced County. Use of ventilators has been a rarity. Conversely, much of our healthcare workforce has been laid off and medical care facilities are closed. A portion of our hospital has even closed due to a lack of patients. Important procedures unrelated to COVID-19 have been deferred, which are known to lead to poor health outcomes for our residents.
“If the capacity of our healthcare system was the primary reason for the business closures then it should also be the primary reason for allowing businesses to reopen, albeit in a manner that focuses on enhanced safety protocols and minimizes the risk of increased transmission.”
More Testing In Town
Meanwhile, as part of the state’s effort to expand community COVID-19 testing in underserved areas, a new site opened this week just inside the main entrance of the Merced County Fairgrounds in Merced.
The site is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m, Monday through Friday, to all Merced County residents who would like to be tested. However, due to high demand, the service is by appointment only; walk-ins are not being accepted at this time.
“We’re all in this together and so I think this is a step in the right direction,” said Steve Luna, a local resident, as he waited in line on Monday for a health care professional to administer a long nasopharyngeal swab into his nose and find a specimen for testing.
Jazmin Moreno said she made her way to the test site after she heard about a fellow employee at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston had tested positive and another coworker called in sick for two days in a row.
“I wanted to come in to get tested now so that I know sooner than later,” she told the Times. “I receive the emails from the county so right when testing was able for everyone I made my appointment because of my high risk job. I called my work on Monday, about an hour before my shift, and said I was getting tested later that day, and they said I couldn’t come back to work until I got medically cleared.”
Moreno said she has talked to other workers concerned about possible COVID-19 cases at the plant and the need to be informed of possible exposure. She said a few workers have told her they were not going to show up for work.
“It’s not only employees, it’s our families too,” she said. “I have two daughters and I have to protect them from all this.”
Food Processing Plants
So far, there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases linked to the Livingston poultry processing plant. Last month, An employee at a Foster Farms plant in Fresno tested positive for the coronavirus, corporate representatives confirmed. And in Kelso, Washington, four cases of COVID-19 were detected at a Foster Farms processing plant, though none of the employees required hospitalization.
Foster Farms employs about 3,200 people in Livingston and 1,300 in Turlock. The Livingston plant is considered the largest of its kind on the West Coast, but only accounts for a small percentage of the national poultry food supply. According to Ira Brill, the company’s vice president of communications, Foster Farms has followed Centers for Disease Control guidelines to keep employees safe, including hand sanitation and face masks,
Livingston Mayor Gurpal Samra — who has friends and family members who work at Foster Farms — told the Times it wouldn’t take long for the community to find out if there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the local plant.
“If Foster Farms had an issue it would spread quickly through our community,” Samra said. “A lot of our residents work there.”
The mayor said the company is required to report about problems related to COVID-19, and so far they have only had correspondence about new safety protocols being implemented.
Nevertheless, according to new federal government data released this week, thousands of U.S. workers in meat processing plants have been infected with the coronavirus, and at least 20 have died. As of April 27, 4,913 meat and poultry plant workers in 115 plants in 19 states had been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Getting Back To Work
Mayor Samra did have strong feelings about the economic situation in Livingston, a town of about 4,427 residents.
“Our hands are tied,” he said with regard to the current Health Order. “The county and the state are using a really wide brush to implement rules. We should be able to modify things that are unique to our city. What is good for Merced is not necessarily good for Gustine, Dos Palos or Livingston. We can easily comply with social distancing requirements at most of our businesses. I’m willing to be that our restaurants don’t get as packed as in Merced or Los Banos. … But the county says: ‘Here is what it is’ and we can’t go less than the county order requires. We can do more. We could make everybody where masks when they go outside. But we can’t do less.”
Back in Merced, the City Council held a meeting by way of an online connection linked to remote locations of individual members and staff, and broadcast on TV and website portals. They all discussed city initiatives to provide some economic relief to residents and business, and some local stimulus plans.
The City Council agreed to defer the transient occupancy tax (TOT) payments made by the local hotel and lodging industry until July 31. The 90-day deferral will also waive late fees or penalties for those in good financial standing with the city. The move is expected to be finalized at the next council meeting.
Industry representatives said the normal hotel occupancy rates are down about 80 percent. City Manager Steve Carrigan said the combined deferrals from all the hotels and motels in town will total about $320,000, and that will still be due unless another extension is approved.
The TOT move was about the only decisive action taken during the meeting that dragged on from 6 p.m. to midnight. Council members continued to hash out details for a city-sponsored COVID-19 recovery plan at an estimated $2 million expense, with dollars from the General Fund, Community Development Block Grants, utility credits and private donations.
The ideas include direct loans and grants for small businesses, rent support for residents, food bank assistance, a one-time utility bill rebate and a voucher program for residents to use at local shops.
The council also formed a subcommittee, including Councilmen Matt Serratto and Fernando Echevarria, charged with engaging local landlords, Realtors and tenants rights groups over residents’ concerns about paying monthly rents and facing eviction in the fallout from the pandemic. A report is expected at the next meeting.
• As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 6, 2020, there are 147 confirmed cases (58 active) of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) in Merced County. Of that number, 86 have recovered and three have died.
• In California, there are 58,281 confirmed cases and 2,365 deaths.
• COVID-19 testing is available for all Merced County residents at the Merced County Fairgrounds: 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Merced; 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday – Friday. Register online at: www.lhi.care/covidtesting or by calling 1-888-634-1123.