A Socially Distant Town Hall with Senator Nancy Skinner

By Kate McKinley

On Thursday evening, March 19, California State Senator and UC Berkeley alumna Nancy Skinner held a phone-in town hall for constituents, focused on the shelter in place orders. As she was about to introduce her guest experts from Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, she interrupted herself with the news that Governor Gavin Newsom had just announced a statewide shelter-in-place order, raising the stakes of the meeting.

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson kicked things off with a recap of all the COVID-19 events and numbers to date, from first confirmed case to today’s estimates. His main narrative, however, was that Alameda County has a lot of employees and provides a lot of services to a populous county. They’re still working out how best to balance the needs of county employees to take care of themselves and their families with the need to provide services to county residents.

Regarding enforcement, Dr. Farantino said the counties are “trying to take an educational approach” and said so far they haven’t had to resort to fines or jail time.

Other items of note for Alameda County include early release for low-level offenders in county jails and a countywide moratorium on evictions. Although the county only has authority over evictions in unincorporated parts of the county, both Oakland and Berkeley have also suspended evictions. Furthermore, the county sheriff has announced a suspension of eviction enforcement until further notice.

The Contra Costa County Public Health Director, Dr. Chris Farantino, explained the idea of “flattening the curve”—slowing the spread of illness with social distancing so that healthcare services don’t become overwhelmed. He and the other health officials (Dr. Erica Pan, interim Health Director of Alameda County, and Susan Shiu, Public Information Officer of Contra Costa County) discussed the guidelines, but mainly stressed the availability of more information on the counties’ websites.

The final part of the town hall was dedicated to questions emailed in earlier in the day. One constituent wondered if no-contact, non-essential businesses such as landscape gardening could stay open and was told that they really should stay home. Another asked what, if any, enforcement is in place for the shelter-in-place order. Farantino said the counties are “trying to take an educational approach, that this is for the benefit of the whole community” and said so far it has succeeded and they haven’t had to resort to fines or jail time.

But the question that seemed most asked and least answered is what recourse workers have if their employer claims they’re essential and orders them to work when they should be sheltering. After a noticeably lengthy pause, Carson spoke about the different categories of “essential” work that can be found on the county website. When Skinner reiterated the question more pointedly, Carson adopted the “educative approach” line and said he hopes it doesn’t come to litigation.

Wrapping up the session, Skinner mentioned that the state has extended driver’s license renewals and has pushed tax filing and payment both back to July. She also said that county and state public health sites are updated daily, and reminded listeners of the importance of obtaining information from reputable sources.

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