In San Mateo, police patrols have increased, playgrounds are now closed and rent payments are being deferred for those living on city-owned properties which includes low-income housing to name just a few recent actions taken by city officials in response to the ongoing health crisis.
City Manager Drew Corbett provided an update on COVID-19-related changes to city operations at a City Council meeting Monday, stressing that essential services continue to be provided.
The police and fire departments are both fully operational with adjustments made to working conditions in addition to the deployment of personnel, Corbett said.
Police Chief Ed Barberini said patrol staffing levels have been increased to ensure safety at essential businesses, including grocery stores and banks, non-essential businesses that have been forced to close shop — some owners have been concerned about looting — as well as a COVID-19 testing site established at the San Mateo County Event Center.
A greater police presence on the streets is also meant to remind the public that safety services have not been interrupted and that “there’s no need for major concern,” Barberini added.
Barberini said thus far there has not been an event that required “significant law enforcement interaction,” adding that 911 emergency calls are down 20% last week compared to the same week last year.
Police patrols have extended into the aisles of grocery stores and, contrary to expectations, there have been almost zero incidents there, said police spokesman Officer Michael Haobsh. He also expected domestic violence cases to increase while the stay-at-home order is in effect, but “we’re not seeing that at all,” he said.
Haobsh noted auto burglaries are also down in the city while disturbances, such as noise complaints, predictably have risen since the countywide stay-at-home order took effect.
Police are still educating people about the stay-at-home order rather than enforcing it, though officers in some cases have had to break up parties and other gatherings prohibited by the order, Haobsh said.
As for changes to working conditions, additional personal protective equipment has been issued to every officer; patrol cars are disinfected before and after every shift; and designated cleaning stations have been set up at the police station to ensure all who enter and exit are free of the coronavirus. A plan is in place for how to respond if an officer gets infected with the coronavirus, the police station lobby and gym are closed and patrol briefings have even been held outside.
Those protocols and others were implemented by a COVID-19 health safety unit that Barberini formed in response to the pandemic. Haobsh said the unit’s actions have “put a lot of officers’ and dispatchers’ minds at ease.”
“It’s not an easy environment to work in,” Barberini said, referring generally to the job of policing during an epidemic. “While other folks are asked to participate in social distancing, their primary job is to interact with individuals and we’re trying to do that as safely as possible.”
Police staffing levels this week have transitioned into what Barberini described as a “sustainability model,” and plans are being developed with neighboring jurisdictions to help with future staffing needs if they arise.
“We’re thinking long term about how we’re going to provide law enforcement services should our workforce be impacted by the virus,” he said, adding that the staffing changes have had a “very limited” impact on overtime.
Those not assigned to patrols, including sworn and non-sworn personnel, are working from home. The move creates a “reserve work force that are not exposed daily to folks in the police department,” Barberini said.
San Mateo Consolidated Fire Chief Ray Iverson said all nine fire stations are fully staffed and operational and the department’s emergency workforce is at 95% strength, while department offices are closed to the public and administrative staff are working from home. He also noted calls for service between March 16-27 are down 29% compared to the period time last year.
Iverson said steps have been taken to minimize exposure to crews, including changes to medical response procedures, new uniforms and enhanced application of personal protective equipment.
Barberini said there is currently a sufficient supply of protective equipment for the city’s first responders, but that could soon change depending how long the crisis continues.
As for Public Works, rotating crews are maintaining critical infrastructure, including streets and sewers, the wastewater treatment plant is fully operational and street sweeping is continuing downtown and in commercial areas, Corbett said.
All Park and Recreation facilities are currently closed and programs have been canceled. Poplar Creek golf course is closed and while the city’s parks remain open, all playgrounds were closed Monday, and restrooms at smaller parks are also closed, though the ones at larger parks will remain open. Informational signs about social distancing are being installed at parks and maintenance there is currently limited, Corbett said. The city’s senior lunch program is also still being offered for pickup.
The residential side of the Community Development Department is fully operational with some adjustments. Inspections are being done virtually as much as possible, planning applications are being processed remotely and new applications are not being accepted.
Commercial operations, on the other hand, are very limited based on the county’s order, Corbett said.
All library branches are closed, late fees are being waived and return dates for checked-out items are being pushed back to June 30.
In addition to deferring April rent for private tenants of city-owned properties, Corbett also decided to waive late fees for the business license tax.
Corbett said a plan is being developed for how the city will function if the shelter-in-place order is extended while his office also works to quantify the financial impacts of COVID-19 on the city and develop a recovery plan.
“I’m expecting a pretty significant revenue impact, particularly for our hotel tax as hotels are seeing very little occupancy at this time,” he said. “We’re not seeing a significant amount of savings [with reduced operations] in relation to the significant amount of revenue we’re losing.”
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