As crisis worsens, City Hall opens Emergency Operations Center, makes plans to help struggling residents, businesses | News | Palo Alto Online |

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As crisis worsens, City Hall opens Emergency Operations Center, makes plans to help struggling residents, businesses

City Council extends 'emergency' declaration in response to pandemic

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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.

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Comments

18 people like this
Posted by Citizen local
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2020 at 10:46 am

First things:

Now would be a great time for the City to institute a much better use of technology for City meetings, so that citizens can register and join in, make public comment, and even provide real-time "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" feedback to proposals from the dais that councilmembers can view afterwards, all ONLINE.

Secondly, one way the public should be allowed out and about should be permitted drivers to get driving practice for licenses. Students with permits are already at home with their parents, if they are with their parents in the car, already have permits and some driving experience, they should be allowed to get their driving hours in. It's better now anyway with less traffic. If they have elderly family members, they could be called to drive in a health emergency, and can help the community better as young people to volunteer to get supplies for others.

You know what would help the most for middle-class people is just if Congress would repeal the 2017 tax changes for anyone whose taxes went way UP, and let people amend their returns back to those changes.... It would be nice if the media would report on what happened to MILLIONS of people on the lower rungs of middle-class in high cost areas. Somehow the rightwing interpretation that this was about state taxes in high cost of living areas lowering their state taxes got furthered, but the fact that someone making $150,000 here is living the equivalent standard of living of someone making $23,000 in many parts of the country and is ALREADY paying much higher taxes to the federal government than the person in the exact same economic class elsewhere (so their taking a larger deduction is appropriate) never gets mentioned. Those people already can't take advantage of all kinds of aspects of the tax code that were targeted to people in their exact economic stratum, because the cost of living is never factored in.

Why isn't THAT being reported on? The 2017 tax code brutally raised the taxes of millions of middle-class people in many states, and has changed the housing market and caused an exodus to cheaper states that cost-of-living alone didn't, yet still it does not get mentioned in media coverage.

Someone making $109,000 here is considered low income, because it is the equivalent of way less than $20,000 standard of living in many parts of the country. Someone making $150,000 with $30,000 in unreimbursed medical can actually be in worse shape than someone making $20,000 somewhere else because there are no helps for anyone in that bracket, because there is zero consideration of the difference in cost of living.


18 people like this
Posted by PA CItizen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 17, 2020 at 11:01 am

"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."

Stanford University
Stanford Shopping Center
Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce
"Employers" - there are thousands or is it just Palantir

None of these organizations represent me. What other organizations? PA Forward?Kniss, Tanaka, Fine, and Cormack have done the opposite of representing me.

Just sayin, that if this is who the City runs to in a crisis then day-today ....

How about PAN, the neighborhood groups, somebody who doesn't have other interests to prioritize?


11 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 17, 2020 at 11:31 am

@PA Citizen
The Citizen Corp Council (CCC) link is difficult to find on the city website so here it is, Web Link. There is a member on it from the Emergency Service Volunteers (ESV) which represents the neighborhood-based Block Preparedness Coordinators (BPC), as well as a PAUSD representative.
One of the recommendations made in our letter to the council, referenced in the article, is to appoint an Emergency Task Force of community domain experts and civic leaders to expand and leverage expertise, strategic planning, communications and grassroots volunteerism. This could be through an expanded CCC or a complementary body.
As emergency preparedness experts understand, emergencies require enlisting far more resources and expertise than the city has on staff. The city really needs to reach out to the community for broad collaboration.


3 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 17, 2020 at 12:38 pm

How about a holiday on utilitiy bills for those in need.


20 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 17, 2020 at 12:42 pm

Why is the local Chamber of Commerce included here when the national Chamber f Commerce has already come out against helping workers and giving them paid sick days?

Are any small local businesses included here?? How about all the struggling restaurants, the "gig" workers who get no benefits, the musicians who can't tour, etc., etc.?


4 people like this
Posted by gf
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 17, 2020 at 2:14 pm

Wouldn't it be valuable if all those ex-mayors and city leaders offered support, encouragement and practical suggestions rather than whining about "transparency and communication". Seems to me that the communication from the city has been detailed, perhaps even over intense, and the opportunity for folks to participate is there. Did any of these named civic volunteers try the slack channels that are already in place, or any other existing avenues - to offer specific expertise and to volunteer services? Thought not.


20 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 17, 2020 at 5:32 pm

"Wouldn't it be valuable if all those ex-mayors and city leaders offered support, encouragement and practical suggestions rather than whining about "transparency and communication". Seems to me that the communication from the city has been detailed, perhaps even over intense, and the opportunity for folks to participate is there. Did any of these named civic volunteers try the slack channels that are already in place, or any other existing avenues - to offer specific expertise and to volunteer services? Thought not."


Sure... but, Wouldn't it be more valuable if the very inexperienced young Mayor and his family members are more concerned about
protecting community versus protecting peoples political careers?

This is not the time for people to air petty grievances, rather a time for trusted leaders to help lead us through the many challenges we face as a community to best serve all of us!


2 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Mar 17, 2020 at 6:41 pm

anon,

Your very cryptic comment is not in the spirit of transparent communications.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2020 at 10:26 am

Posted by Citizen local, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> Now would be a great time for the City to institute a much better use of technology for City meetings, so that citizens can register and join in, make public comment, and even provide real-time "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" feedback to proposals from the dais that councilmembers can view afterwards, all ONLINE.

Unfortunately, all of these videoconferencing technology "soultions" incorporate elements that are largely proprietary. I always favor open standards, and, someday, we will get there, but, today, there are a few dominant web applications used for this in business and education. The most widely used/publicized right now is Zoom meeting. It is being used in many schools and universities now during the coronavirus crisis. I suggest that city council meetings start taking place *VIA* Zoom. Broadcasting via Zoom or another internet video system is not enough-- we need the actual meetings to take place via Zoom so that all relevant information is shared across the board among council members and audience.

I should add that I'm not sure what the legal ramifications are. It might be that actual legally binding votes have to be deferred until an actual CC meeting quorum is physically present in a public room. To make this work, CC members could mutually pledge not to change their votes without another meeting. A public meeting, broadcast, with only a few witnesses, could work. We are dealing with a highly contagious virus, so, it makes no sense to pack the CC together with a large bunch of citizens as we are accustomed to doing. Yet, we need an open meeting. I suggest trying Zoom (or -- ?) to see if there is a way to keep meetings transparent and open following the Brown Act, and still, safe for the CC and the public.


2 people like this
Posted by C
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 18, 2020 at 2:15 pm

Iconic Mountain View comic store, Lee's Comics, has shut down. ): The store used to be in Alma Plaza as a corner store, way back when. Lee Hester, the owner, is in the vulnerable demographic, so I think this is a wise move. Lee's Comics continues its mail order operations, though. Palo Alto Online may wish to interview small businesses still operating in Palo Alto for future columns and articles.

To support local businesses, particularly restaurants, I suggest Palo Alto Online reaches out to local restaurants to create a local take-out menu for Palo Alto residents, as well as modified hours for stores (eg. Safeway which has also announced special hours for seniors). Restaurants may also wish to offer ingredients in their menus, to reduce resident's reliance on making trips to the grocery.

Best wishes to everyone during the quarantine.


7 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 18, 2020 at 3:01 pm

@Anonfrom another Neighborhood
Thanks for your important questions about the legal ramifications of the emergency situation on city governance.
On Monday, the council ratified a historic Declaration of Emergency, Web Link. This was a necessary action empowering broad and dramatic changes to the authority of local government including; reductions in CEQA requirements, waiver of certain government liabilities, empowering the establishment of curfews, and significant relaxing of rules governing public meetings and the Brown Act requirements, Web Link. Under the Declaration, rules are streamlined for remote participation by members of public bodies including that a council quorum does not need to be present physically for votes to be binding. This was one of the many important issues raised in our joint letter to the council.
The highly consequential ramifications of this Declaration were not explained by the city attorney to the council or the public on Monday and have not yet been reported on in depth.


4 people like this
Posted by He must go
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 19, 2020 at 11:03 pm

Are you kidding me the City of Palo Alto is still performing building inspections. Sending city staff into peoples houses for hot water heaters, bath room remodels, etc. possibly infected people into “shelter in place” homeowners what if the building inspectors are already infected or just carriers. This thing is never going to end.

[Portion removed.]


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