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City of Los Altos looks at short-term, long-term solutions to shelter in place order

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier File Photo
Children play at Grant Park in Los Altos. The city is closing local playgrounds to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Updated March 19 at 9 a.m.

As the Santa Clara County Public Health Department announced one more coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday morning (March 18), bringing the county total to six, Los Altos leaders and staff participated in a now-daily teleconference to update each other on how the city is functioning after the county order to shelter in place.

Los Altos City Manager Chris Jordan, representatives of the Los Altos Police Department and city department heads allowed the Town Crier to listen in to their phone meeting, during which staff grappled with questions concerning the spread of COVID-19.

Since the Los Altos City Council ratified Jordan’s state-of-emergency declaration Tuesday evening, how would each department begin to plan for long-term functionality?

If the multi-jurisdictional order is extended, what services will the community begin to need from its city staff? What if, as Gov. Gavin Newsom foreshadowed in a statement Tuesday, students don’t go back to school until fall?

How will staff morale be elevated as employees have to band together and make decisions they’ve never handled before?

For Jordan, the opportunity to look further ahead instead of focusing on the next hour or day, was almost a welcomed relief.

“This morning’s call was relatively uneventful compared to our (Emergency Operations Center) calls for the past week where we were trying to coordinate our efforts in an evolving, real-time emergency,” Jordan told the Town Crier following the teleconference. “As we move to this phase, we may not find it necessary to keep the (EOC) partially activated, but rather we may have less frequent calls targeting specific ongoing issues.”

When Jordan declared the city’s state of emergency March 12, he readied a partial activation of the city’s EOC. Jordan explained Wednesday that the EOC is a way to coordinate operations when disaster strikes. Because of the nature of the virus, only a management team is in place at the physical location at the Municipal Services Center.

“In this case, we are operating as a virtual EOC – we are not all congregating in one place as you would usually do,” he said in an email.

Getting down to business

Jordan listened and weighed in as his staff shared their to-do lists for coming days. Police Chief Andy Galea said that as of Tuesday, his department's lobby was closed. Officers are still able to greet people outside and handle most of their regular business, but employees who have the capacity to do some of their work from home (such as writing reports) are being urged to do so.

With a majority of the businesses in downtown Los Altos closed, Galea and his staff are focused on increasing patrols in that zone and other commercial areas. Because schools are closed and fewer people are on the road, more patrol officers can be assigned to assist in other areas, Galea said. Calls for service have dropped, he noted. From what police can tell, most people are following the shelter-in-place order. Those who defy the order could be punished with a misdemeanor charge, but enforcement has not yet been warranted, Galea explained.

Galea added that he had received a message from the California Police Chiefs Association asking chiefs to approach grocery stores and other operating businesses to see how officers can assist in making sure “everyone (considered essential services in the order) stays open and adheres to the rules as much as possible).”

Manny Hernandez, the city's municipal services director, told participants that crews have been reduced but are still working to provide essential services, like sewer maintenance. An immediate task, as directed by the city council the night prior, is to close off all playgrounds on city property, Hernandez said. Signage will be posted to inform caretakers that the jungle gym equipment cannot be used. Hernandez is working to contact the Los Altos School District and the Cupertino Unified School District to see if it is possible to place the same signage on their campuses in Los Altos.

A mailbox has been installed in front of city hall to follow best practices of receiving mail, waiting before handling it (studies show novel coronavirus can live on inanimate objects but often dies after a number of hours, Jordan said Tuesday night) and then finally taking it in for distribution. A similar box has been ordered and will be placed next to it for the public to treat as a limited dropbox for paperwork that needs to be submitted in relation to planning and building projects, community development director Jon Biggs said. Those documents, too, will be quarantined before processing. The box is expected to be installed next week.

Certain projects will need to be delayed, several of the department heads pointed out. For engineering, that means that the Los Altos Community Center project will likely be delayed due to the already small crews that have been showing up in recent days, according to engineering services director Jim Sandoval. It is still up in the air whether construction, labeled essential in the order, will halt on the center during the sheltering in place. A drop off in workers is noticeable, and streets seem empty, but the data says otherwise when it comes to traffic flow, Sandoval shared. When comparing Tuesday to Jan. 28, another random Tuesday, cars moving through city streets in the morning hours decreased by 44%, and in the evening hours by 11%.

In addition, panels, interviews and hiring or training for openings within the city are being delayed because much of its workforce is at home. As the city staff operates almost entirely from home, Jordan concluded, it’s important to remember morale must be considered.

“If this drags on, right now everybody’s a little confused, but there’s a bit of a novelty to this right now,” Jordan said, cuing soft laughter from a few city staffers. “That’ll last about another day or two and then people won’t be happy about this. We need to be thinking about what we can do.”

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