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Contra Costa government strives for normalcy in abnormal times

Contra Costa County fire departments, hospital workers and public works forces are still doing their jobs largely as usual, but with skeleton staffs or with most employees working from home. (Photo by Samantha Laurey)

It may not look and feel like usual, but Contra Costa County government is still at work — in some ways, harder than ever.

And even if the current shelter-in-place orders are lifted in two or three weeks, there will be a long period not only playing catch-up on deferred routine tasks, but of helping residents recover from life-upending changes wrought by the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“We’ll be dealing with the aftermath of this for months,” said county Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond.

In the meantime, the top immediate priorities of county government are to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, and to communicate the need for residents to abide by the order to shelter in place and follow other related directives.

Part of that, Supervisor Candace Andersen of Danville said, is guarding against gatherings of large groups of people, or situations in which people are blatantly violating “social distancing” guidelines or other social directives.

So far, the Sheriff’s Office call-for-service volume has remained steady, with no big spike in calls related to new social rules, Andersen said.

“Each city is responsible for its own enforcement,” she said.

Sheriff David Livingston said, “What we have seen so far is everyone coming together with the singular goal of beating COVID-19 — and we will.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Jimmy Lee said via an email that his department’s focus is education about the health order.

“We prefer voluntary compliance, and from what we have seen so far, most people are doing that,” Lee said. “Enforcement is a last resort.”

One thing deputies are not doing, Andersen noted, is carrying out evictions spurred by inability to pay rent or mortgage, as per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent executive order.

Situation normal… almost

While the Sheriff’s Office, county fire departments, county hospital workers and public works forces are still doing their jobs largely as usual, most county departments are operating either with skeleton staffs or with most employees working from home.

Most public offices are closed or, in some cases, open by appointment. The work, though, goes on — for instance, the Contra Costa County Clerk-Recorder and Elections Department buildings and in-person services are limited; the department is urging customers to use online services whenever possible.

Though many in-person services are currently limited to online or over the phone, the human touch survives. Andersen said a wedding was conducted in the Clerk-Recorder’s lobby in Martinez. The bride and groom wore masks, she said, and the officiant stood behind lobby glass.

That human touch will be needed even more in coming weeks, Gioia said, when the county — especially its health services and social services functions — will go into full safety-net mode as the number of job losses and small-business closures becomes more clear.

And Gioia said that, as the next wave of problems manifests, it will be the county’s job to lobby for policy changes that help make people as whole as possible.

Andersen said people’s mental health will be affected by the shelter-in-place order, the lack of socializing, the changes in (or loss of) their jobs, educational challenges and the rest. To that end, at their meeting this past Tuesday, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors postponed a planned discussion on business and focused on both mental health and homeless services.

Need for services continues

Even during this time of separation and isolation, there are ways residents can help their community via nonprofit agencies, Gioia said. Meals on Wheels of Contra Costa is in need of drivers, he said, and Julie Clemens of Shelter Inc. said that the Concord-based nonprofit is always looking for people to donate food, and cook it, for families staying at its Martinez shelter.

“Many retired folks volunteer to do this, and many of them have been kept at home with health concerns,” coronavirus and otherwise, said Clemens, Shelter Inc.’s director of development. “We’ve seen a drop off.”

Many of Shelter Inc.’s 115 employees remain on the front lines, including in its shelters in Martinez, Fairfield and Sacramento. Others, Clemens said, are working to help keep people on the edge of homelessness with a roof over their heads.

Gioia said all five Contra Costa County supervisorial districts have volunteer opportunities, and differ from district to district. They are best discovered, he said, by calling their individual offices and asking about how and where they can be of service.

“Let us know, and we’ll thoughtfully identify where they’re most needed,” Gioia said.