School districts shut down sites, cities encourage distance, utilities defer shutoffs and nonprofits work to remain open for residents in need of food
VISALIA – Before the second confirmed case of COVID-19 in Tulare County was discovered last Friday, the Visalia Unified School District decided it was time to close their doors for at least the next four weeks.
“Visalia Unified realizes that closing schools significantly impacts our families and our community, however, we believe this to be the best course of action to help reduce the impact of any potential spread of the virus,” a VUSD website notice stated last Friday.
They added that health, safety and well-being of students and staff are the highest priority for Visalia Unified School District
“And as such, the district has attentively been monitoring the situation surrounding COVID-19. To our knowledge, no VUSD students or staff members have contracted or are being tested for the virus at this time. However, after careful consideration and out of an abundance of caution, Visalia Unified will close its schools effective immediately,” the notice stated.
VUSD schools will remain closed for the period of March 16 through April 13. VUSD will re-evaluate their status to determine re-opening or continuing with school closures after April 13. The district said that they will communicate updated information with the community as it becomes available. And pledged support to families.
On Monday, VUSD issued a press release offering “Grab-n-Go meal service at more than 24 locations during the school closure. The service began today, Wednesday, March 18 and will run through Friday, April 3. Both lunch and breakfast for the next day will be available for pick up at the same time.
“The District is grateful to be able to offer this service to our students, and we are appreciative of the efforts of our nutritional services, transportation and all other staff members in making this possible,” the press release stated.
VUSD’s closure set off a chain reaction of local school district closures that can be found in the education section of this week’s paper.
Since the second case was confirmed last Friday, the Tulare County Public Health Branch confirmed a third case in the county at Kaweah Delta. That patient is “acutely ill” and in the intensive care unit. More cases may have been confirmed in the county after press time on Tuesday afternoon.
CITIES TAKE ACTION TO LIMIT INTERACTION
The city of Visalia, and others issued a statements last week ensuring that essential services will continue in the throes of COVID-19.
City manager Randy Groom said that the city will continue to stay in touch with the impact the virus has locally, and assured residents that there is no need to panicked hoarding.
“At this point, the presence of COVID-19, in Visalia does not warrant overstocking food and supplies. Reasonable preparations are prudent for any unseen circumstances, however, we ask that community members be mindful and stay prepared, while remaining calm,” Groom states in a March. 14 city update.
Like other cities, in accordance with CDC and Governor Gavin Newsom’s guidelines, Visalia cancelled their city sponsored events. It was announced midway through last week that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Irish Fest were cancelled, in addition to the Riverway Sports Park Softball Complex Grand Opening and Pillars of Fame events.
The city is aiming to limit in person traffic to passport services and utility billing. They stated that customers are encouraged to pay by phone or online on the city’s website or at 559-713-4499.
Other essential public safety and health services are expected to remain unaffected except for non-essential functions like the Police Activities League. Solid waste services such as garbage and recycling will also continue as normal.
The city’s animal shelter and airport were reported as operating during regular hours as of last Saturday, March 14.
The city of Exeter issued their statement last Friday, March 13, stating that much of their city services will remain unaffected as well. However, they encourage the public to take similar precautions that Visalia is encouraging. Utility payments and other customer services should be carried out by phone or online if at all possible by vising their website or using the drop box at city hall.
Exeter city manager Adam Ennis, formerly public works director for Visalia, said that public utilities such as water, sewer and trash will also remain unaffected.
“We aren’t looking at [shutting off water]. If it gets around and we have folks out for a bit, we are already planning for that…Let’s say we have several [employees] down, we even have contractors that are prequalified to have stuff going if we needed to,” Ennis said.
The only thing that might change is the way city councils meet. Last week Gov. Newsom signed an executive order relaxing Brown Act requirements. The order specifically allows for local representatives to teleconference into public meetings.
“We might do that if we have some council members that are concerned about that kind of thing…we will look at that a little while…beyond that we don’t see it,” Ennis said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette last week.
As of last week Farmersville mayor, Greg Gomez, said that none of the city’s council meetings have been cancelled or modified to allow for teleconferencing. However, several other local events have been affected.
The Tulare/Kings Chamber of Commerce announced that they have cancelled their Dia de los Ninos event in Farmersville. Family Health Care Network also cancelled a health fair scheduled for April in town. The next large event that perhaps could be affected in the annual Memorial Day Parade. Gomez said questions were brought up whether the city should cancel it, although it is in May.
Woodlake and Lindsay have decided to follow suit with public health officials.
“We continue to be in contact and work closely with County of Tulare Public Health officials and partner agencies. As we continue to monitor this rapidly changing situation we will take necessary and appropriate steps to minimize risk to our citizens,” Woodlake stated in a press release last week.
Woodlake’s release stated that recreation programs have been suspended, and utility payments should either be made over the phone or dropped in the city’s drop box on the southside of city hall.
Lindsay brass has said that they are also suspending city sponsored recreation activity till midway through April.
“The city of Lindsay is taking precautions to limit the spread of the virus. This includes suspending recreation, youth, aquatic, and wellness activates until April 13th. At that time these activities will be reevaluated,” a Lindsay press release stated last week.
The release added that the Friday Night Market is suspended through April and the Orange Blossom Festival will only continue on a limited basis.
Tulare has taken the opposite approach. Mayor Jose Sigala said they have not canceled any city-run events but is taking precautions to protect employees, such as hand sanitation stations at city offices and finding new ways to que lines in order to keep people 6 feet apart. As of press time, Sigala said the Tulare Senior Center is still operating and the Annual Spring Carnival and Eggstravaganza on April 9 at Zumwalt Park has not been cancelled.
“We are doing what we can to protect our employees but otherwise things are pretty normal at city hall,” Sigala said.
The city had a more in-depth discussion of the measures it will take in the coming weeks during the Tulare City Council meeting last night, March 17, listed under City Manager items titled “Staff update and discussion regarding COVID-19.”
Also last night after press time, the Porterville City Council was expected to adopt a resolution declaring a local emergency due to COVID-19. “… preparing for, responding to, mitigating, and recovering from the spread of COVID-19 requires the City to divert resources from normal day-to-day operations, and has and will continue to impose extraordinary requirements on and expenses to the City; and … does warrant and necessitate the proclamation of the existence of a local emergency in the city of Porterville.”
At the same meeting, city manager John Lollis said the city removed an item for action “Porterville Celebrates Reading” on April 4 and has already canceled its Fishing Derby on March 21 and Kids Fest on March 28. Lollis said two councilmembers who have health issues so they will be teleconferencing into the meeting from locations. Those locations will not be open to the public, as they would have been in the past, since the Governor temporarily suspended portions of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.
Lollis said city offices remain open to the public and hand sanitation stations have been set up at its busiest locations – Utility payments, passport services and planning and engineering. The busiest of thos counters is utility payments, where the city will que the line outside of the building in order to maintain the 6 feet of distance recommended by health officials.
“It’s good to exercise a lot of caution especially with the [first] known case coming out of this area,” Lollis said.
Lollis said there has been excellent communication between the city, Sierra View Medical Center, Porterville College and school districts in the Porterville area, most of which made decisions to follow Porterville Unified’s lead and take their Spring Break this week while evalauting and monitoring the situation before students return to class on March 23.
“Porterville Unified School District is aware of a number of other school districts in the state that have made the decision to suspend school, in some cases for several weeks,” a note on the district’s website says. “Unlike the majority of these districts, PUSD is fortunate in having its Spring Break scheduled for next week and, as shared previously, will use that opportunity to ensure campuses are cleaned and disinfected for the health and safety of our staff and students.”
District 1 Supervisor Kuyler Crocker said the county doesn’t really hold many events or provide recreation programs so there wasn’t as much to cancel. He said county offices will remain open and they are continuing discussions with staff about how best to limit the number of residents and staff occupying offices at the same time. Crocker said to his knowledge, no staff meetings or public meetings have been canceled.
“We’re not panicked, but we are prepared,” Crocker said. “We are moving on with our daily lives and encourage others to do the same.”
Crocker, who also represents Tulare County on the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG), was in attendance at the transportation agency’s March 16 meeting. TCAG gave board members the option to call-into the meeting rather than attend in person.
“We have $70 million in projects on the line so we will definitely be having a meeting,” Crocker said in an interview before the meeting.
All cities are towing the public health line stating that they are keeping in contact with the public health departments in the area, and limiting crowd sizes that has recently been downgraded from 250 to 50. All cities are stating first and foremost that The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the County of Tulare Public Health Department remain the best resources for current information about the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID19) and safety tips.
For those raiding the bottled water sections at local grocers because they think utility services will cease, stop it!
“While you may be stocking up on emergency supplies in case you need to stay home, please know that you do NOT need to worry about your tap water,” CalWater said in a released statement.
Tulare County’s largest water service provider, California Water Service in Visalia, announced March 13 that it has temporarily suspended shutoffs for nonpayment, but reminded customers to call their office if they cannot pay their bills. CalWater also notified its customers that the World Health Organization (WHO), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the CDC have all confirmed that water is safe to drink as normal because existing water quality treatment processes are sufficient to keep the virus out of the water system.
The message is especially important in Tulare County where residents living in small, unincorporated communities rely on bottled water because they are unable to drink water from their tap, which is contaminated beyond the level safe for human consumption. In places like Tooleville, a town of about 200 people east of Exeter, the state began issuing water boil advisories in the 1990s due to a high level of nitrates, an odorless and tasteless contaminant which can cause blue baby disease if ingested at high levels by infants or pregnant women.
CalWater in Visalia said it has closed its Customer Center lobby to avoid packing people into a confined, small space where employees and customers would be unable to maintain the recommended 6 feet in social distancing. The water service does remain fully staffed and will work to maintain a safe and reliable supply of drinking water while sanitizing their workplace behind the scenes. Anyone with questions about their bill or assistance, representatives will be answering the phone at the Visalia office at (559) 624-1600. You can also email CalWater through its customer portal at www.calwater.com/contact-us/vis/.
“Our highest priority is the health and safety of our customers, and we are committed to doing our part to help our community respond to COVID-19,” Cal Water Visalia District Manager Tammy Kelly said. “As the situation continues to evolve, we will keep evaluating and updating our response efforts.”
In addition to the county’s largest water provider, other major utilities announced on Friday they were suspending service disconnections as well. Southern California Edison announced that, in addition to suspending service disconnections for nonpayment, they would also be waiving late fees for residential and business electricity customers impacted by the COVID-19 emergency.
“We know this is a difficult time for our communities, and we want SCE’s customers and employees to know we are here for them,” said Pedro Pizarro, president and CEO of Edison International, SCE’s parent company. “While SCE continues taking actions to maintain operations and provide reliable electric service to its 15 million customers, we also want to do our part to support communities in these challenging times.”
Edison International will also make $1 million in donations to community-based organizations. SCE encourages customers who are having trouble paying their bills to contact the SCE Customer Contact Center to discuss payment extensions or arrangements. SCE also has savings programs for income-qualified customers and follows requirements for customer protections from the California Public Utilities Commission. Details on these programs are available at sce.com/billhelp or by calling 1-800-950-2356.
To ensure seamless customer service and operations, about 5,000 SCE workers will continue to work at SCE facilities or in the field, including workers in its Customer Contact Centers, troublemen and linemen. These workers will continue practicing social distancing and hygiene recommendations that will be coupled with enhanced cleaning of facilities.
Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) announced last Friday it had suspended service disconnections to any customers having a hard time paying their bill. This policy will remain in effect until further notice. Customers are encouraged to call 1-877-238-0092 to speak with a representative about their bill. SoCalGas customer service is available 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.
“We understand that our customers may be worried about paying their upcoming natural gas bill at this time,” said Paul Goldstein, vice president of customer services at SoCalGas. “We want to help ease their concerns and continue to provide the reliable natural gas service they depend on to heat their homes and hot water and cook their food.”
In addition to the temporary suspension of service disconnections, SoCalGas is taking precautionary measures for its employees and customers including: Asking customers a series of health-based questions before entering the home; telling employees to keep a safe distance from anyone sick or self-isolating; making hand sanitizer available for customers at all branches and payment offices; and offering mail, over-the-phone and online payment options for customers who don’t want to make payments in person.
LINKING FOOD FOR THOSE IN NEED
The panic over COVID-19 has driven those reliant on food donations to require a little more of the pantry staples that they normally get from FoodLink Tulare County. However, even FoodLink is struggling to meet the growing demand.
FoodLink director Nicole Celaya said that the demand for more food is there, but the volunteer she normally relies on as a part of her workforce is not.
“Now that VUSD has closed…right now we are fine and there are partners we are working with to get extra resource or extra food. I don’t foresee food being the problem it’s mostly about staffing and getting out into the community to provide access and keep everyone safe,” Celaya said.
Almost 95% of FoodLink’s volunteers are school aged children. When COVID-19 reached the United States and California, transportation to distribution sites were cutoff. Celaya said that with schools closed for at least the next few weeks, there is an opportunity to integrate the school-aged workforce back into the fold.
While schools have closed they are still working on ways to ensure that students still get food. But that does not fill all the gaps. Celaya said that FoodLink is working with the California Association of Food Banks to get extra resources and maybe even temporary staff. Celaya added that visitors to the FoodLink distribution posts should take appropriate precautions for safety.
“We do ask that everyone take the proper recommended precautions when attending distributions and please have patience with us as we implement safety procedures which may cause longer wait times. We are examining alternative distribution models and will communicate those if they become necessary,” Celaya said.
Other nonprofits like the Fox Theatre have been forced to forego shows whether it be for recommended attendance capacity or because acts have cancelled. In a press release last week the Fox stated that they are taking precautional measure to help stem the swell of COVID-19 cases.
“We’re closely monitoring the latest developments with an eye on our calendar. While we are disappointed to have to move or cancel these shows, we will resume operations as soon as we’re able to. We thank the community for its patience and understanding as we navigate this serious and quickly changing situation,” Vikky Escobedo, Executive Director of The Fox. The well-being of our patrons, performers, and team members is our top priority.”
- March 14: Frankie Quinones Tickets for this show will be honored on a rescheduled date this summer. Those unable to attend should contact the Fox business office or our box office for a refund.
- March 21: Sequoia Symphony Orchestra This performance will be rescheduled on a date to be determined in May.
- March 25: Catapult The production company has canceled all California shows. Tickets purchased by credit card will be refunded next week. Ticket buyers who purchased tickets with cash should contact the Fox business office or our box office for refunds.
- March 26: Throwback Thursday: Space Balls This showing has been canceled and all tickets will be refunded. For the latest updates from The Fox, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter or at www.foxvisalia.org. Additionally, please visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/ for the latest pandemic information and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.