After a hectic week in which Palo Alto reduced civic services and shut down facilities, officials are preparing for a new normal at City Hall, with most employees working remotely, hiring at a complete standstill and emergency responders scrambling to stay ahead of the coronavirus crisis.
On Monday, the city convened the Citizens Corps Council, a group that includes representatives from Stanford University, Stanford Shopping Center, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and other major employers and organizations, to help coordinate the city's evolving response to the public health crisis.
It also opened its Emergency Operations Center, a situation room at City Hall that is used to plan for and respond to disasters, and announced its plan to roll out later this week a "community support center" that residents will be able to call to get answers and request assistance.
And as the day came to a close, the City Council convened in an eerily empty Council Chambers to ratify the emergency proclamation that City Manager Ed Shikada declared last week, thus extending it by 60 days.
The moves are part of the city's response to a crisis that entered a new phase Monday when six Bay Area counties, including Santa Clara County, instituted a "stay-at-home" order for residents. The order makes exceptions for "essential workers" and for essential trips such as to the grocery store or pharmacy, and Shikada said the city is now in the process of figuring out who fits the "essential category" and adapting to the new normal by creating new service-delivery models that allow remote access and require less face-to-face interaction. Library branches are now closed (though patrons can still access the e-Library) and all public interactions with City Hall are now by appointment only.
"We're certainly in a new mode, where those services that are not deemed essential will be curtailed for a period of at least three weeks," Shikada told the council on Monday.
In addition, the city is considering new ways to help businesses and residents that are feeling the pain during the public health emergency. Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who participates in the Citizen Corps Council, suggested passing an interim resolution that would create a 60- or 90-day moratorium on evictions for commercial and residential tenants. And Mayor Adrian Fine said he is working with Shikada and other city leaders to consider ways to help businesses.
"In the span of a week it seems like, really, the bottom has fallen out and a lot of things are changing," Fine said. "So I am working with the city manager and other officials on local business support. What we can do about parking tickets? Some have mentioned eviction ordinances, ceasing utility shutoffs and other measures to support our residents and businesses during this crisis."
The uncertain climate is also prompting the city to delay and potentially reconsider some of its long-planned initiatives, including a business tax that the council is preparing to put on the November ballot and the council's plan to redesign Palo Alto's rail crossings. The Expanded Community Advisory Panel, which was charged with presenting its recommendations for three rail crossings to the council by April 30, has had to cancel numerous meetings in the past month.
Councilman Greg Tanaka argued Monday that the council should reconsider the business tax, given the changing circumstances. And with hotel occupancy rates dropping, city officials are bracing for lower tax revenues and tempered expectations.
"Future hiring be reviewed on case-by-case basis, recognizing that the city's ongoing expenses will need to be monitored very closely and in all likelihood cut back, in recognition of the severe economic impact of this event," Shikada said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted that Palo Alto is in an area that is at the "epicenter of what's going on" and observed that people are responding in very different ways to the crisis. Some people, she said, are having a hard time staying at home for an extended period. Others, though, have taken advantage of the recent county directives to do things that they hadn't been able to do for a while.
Wildly uneven reactions are also seen at local businesses, with residents avoiding coffee shops and restaurants and jamming into local supermarkets to stock up for what could be extended homestays. On Monday afternoon, a Safeway in Menlo Park had was full of empty shelves, even as lines of shoppers with overfilled carts snaked through the store's aisles toward the registers.
Shikada said that the county appointed San Jose to take the lead in food distribution to needy residents. He noted that San Jose is relying on individual cities to identify the needy populations that might be interested in participating in the food-distribution system. The new call center, he said, will allow residents and organizations to access that program.
Even though the situation is changing hour by the hour, Shikada said, the city is thinking strategically and recognizing that this is, in likelihood, a "multimonth, if not longer in duration, event that we're planning for."
Some believe the city can do even more. On Monday, a group of former mayors and civic activists submitted a letter to the council urging more coordination with neighboring communities and "thorough, transparent communications to the public." The letter, which is cosigned former Palo Alto mayors Pat Burt, Peter Drekmeier, Karen Holman, Yoriko Kishimoto and Lanie Wheeler, former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, and civic volunteers Neilson Buchanan, Nadia Naik and Don MacDougal, urged the council to enhance its planning efforts in several key areas. These include considering whether to ask some emergency responders who have not been exposed to the virus to voluntarily quarantine themselves, thus ensuring that they would be available if the crisis gets worse, and considering creating an "emergency advisory council of community members with technical and civic expertise."
"The role of the city government in leading and coordinating community planning and actions needs to be clarified and communicated broadly to the community. Greater transparency promotes public confidence," the letter states. "Critically, as the implications of the situation continue to escalate, the city must strive to be proactive rather than reactive in the face of escalating challenges. To the extent we can get ahead of the curve, the city can reduce the degree of health impacts and moderate subsequent economic ramifications."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.