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Tuolumne Leaders Discuss ‘The New Normal’

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Sonora, CA — A virtual “town hall” Friday was jam-packed with panelists and over 100 public attendees.

Tuolumne County Vice Chair Ryan Campbell led the session, which kicked off at 4 p.m. on the Zoom platform. Several local agency officials and agency heads who were asked to participate as panel members were on hand.

Public Health Officer Dr, Liza Ortiz led off, reporting she had amended the local order in keeping with Governor Gavin Newsom’s roadmap guiding the state into Early Stage 2, which slightly modifies the stay-at-home order and allows for curbside pickup at small retail businesses.

The order clarifies that short-term lodging continues to be available only for essential workers as already defined in the state order.

With regard to travel, to the extent that such business sectors are re-opened, Californians may leave their homes to work at, patronize, or otherwise engage with those businesses, establishments, or activities and must, when they do so, continue at all times to practice physical distancing, minimize their time outside of the home, and wash their hands frequently.

To prevent further spread of COVID-19 to and within other state jurisdictions, individuals are advised not to travel significant distances and should stay close to home. Ortiz reports that her office is working diligently to complete the attestation process that will allow Tuolumne County to advance into Late Stage 2 of the roadmap as soon as possible.

More Travel = More Transmission

The doctor advised that while Tuolumne County has only two COVID cases who have both recovered the situation could change quickly, noting the recent sharp rise in Mariposa County cases. “We have a lot of travel between our counties and Central Valley has transmission,” she noted. On the statewide level she remarked that most new cases are in Southern California while the Bay Area seems to be stabilizing.

She was confident at this point that Tuolumne County is testing enough with less than one percent of the tests coming back positive and no evidence to date of community transmission. Also, testing becoming more available with regional testing sites opening for those who want to be tested.

“We have the lab capacity to meet current needs, have testing supplies and we are expanding our capacity,” she pointed out. Still, “Even with all these changes, people still need to stay physically apart from people who are not part of their household. Physical distancing is our new normal.”

Campbell queried the panel and it was acknowledged by several members that the local community seems nearly equally split by residents leery of opening things back up to quickly and those who are impatient, complaining about their constitutional rights and a need to get back to business.

Ortiz maintained that the county has benefited significantly through physical distancing and staying at home. “It has allowed us time to develop an adequate surge plan and lower the speed at which people are getting infected. The disease can be very impactful and with more patients at once more difficult to care for.”

She added, “Tuolumne County has not been exposed and residents are incredibly vulnerable as we open back up.” Taking precautions remains key as medical providers await a vaccine, which is still many months away, and while medications that can be effective are carefully evaluated.

Seniors Fearful Of Isolation

Cathy Peacock, speaking for Interfaith and the Commission On Aging, reported that clients remain confused as to the rules because so many are not internet-savvy. Not as afraid of coronavirus, she says more of them are angry, fearing the loneliness and not being able to go out. Like all the other local agencies, she says needs are up and she can use more volunteers.

Childcare providers now taking care of essential workers’ families are preparing to accept more children as non-essential workers head back to work.

County Schools Superintendent Cathy Parker talked at length about how flexible and creative the local school districts’ teachers and staff have become. Not knowing when or if schools will return to brick-and-mortar education or some hybrid form, she shared that state education budgets are being slashed at a rate that is making the Great Recession look like a blip.

Still, she was upbeat and spoke with great pride for all involved, including students — especially those going through promotion or graduation phases — and their resiliency as they progress during a pandemic no one in our lifetime has experienced. She also asked anyone interested in supporting the schools to reach out and thank teachers, staff, and ask about ways to volunteer.

ATCAA Executive Director Joe Bors reported the Jamestown Food Bank was serving about a 1,000 more families this quarter, now by drive-by pick-up, and that most of the pantries the agency supports are still open.

ATCAA Housing services has not skipped a beat he says. “We are anticipating a large surge as soon as the moratorium on evictions at the end of June is passed and we are terribly concerned, have voiced that concern and have attempted to get additional grant money.”

Concerns For The ‘Working Poor’

Likewise, Peacock commented that the local working poor are fearful about maintaining stable housing. “Where one has lost a job and another has decreased hours — they are fearful they are not going to be able to cover costs.”

Kristi Conforti reported about a ten percent increase in Meals On Wheels services and more seniors driving through for the twice weekly packaged meals. She added that it is easy to sign up for some of the services through the Senior Center.

Bors shared that ATCAA staff continues to provide services mostly remotely from home offices and plans to open back up for front-facing intake as soon as they have procured sufficient thermometers, PPE, hand sanitizers, disinfectant, gloves and have a plan in place for limiting personnel in offices.

Dave Thoeny of Mother Lode Job Training shared perhaps some of the most promising news for businesses and job seekers. “There are currently jobs and once the ‘new normal’ takes place…there will be jobs available. We have a multitude of work-based learning [opportunities]. We are about 80 percent grant funded and can funnel to businesses to be a work-based training provider.”

His agency is poised to help train and reenter into the workforce short and long-term unemployed. “We can become their employers or record, which helps businesses and we have seen an increase in people applying.”

Working with EDD, Thoeny says his office can track the unemployment curve and estimates the four-county service area is experiencing 20 percent unemployment overall. He encouraged businesses and job seekers to contact the agency for more information about resources now and becoming available. “We are helping businesses reopen and reemploy.”