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State to spend $150 million to protect homeless from virus

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As worries about the spread of the coronavirus confine millions of Californians to their homes, concern is growing about those who have no homes in which to shelter.

California has more than 150,000 homeless people, the most in the nation, and there’s concern that as the rest of the state’s residents are being told to stay apart and to frequently wash their hands, the homeless are living just as they did before the outbreak.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday said it’s possible 60,000 could contract the virus. The governor announced he would spend $150 million on efforts to prevent the COVID-19 virus from sweeping through that population.

“I hope you get a sense of the seriousness we’re taking the issue of homelessness,” Newsom said in a Facebook Live broadcast.

Two-thirds of the money will go directly to local governments to spend on homeless services and $50 million will be used by the state to purchase 1,300 travel trailers and lease hotel rooms for emergency housing.

The trailers will be used for homeless people requiring isolation after testing positive for the virus or who are showing symptoms. California also has identified 950 hotels that could lease rooms to local governments to house the homeless.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city, through the Red Cross, will provide 6,000 emergency beds at recreation centers, including 1,600 by week’s end.

“Too many … lack a basic necessity that will help most of us get through this crisis: a home,” Garcetti said.

LA has an estimated 27,000 of the county’s 60,000 homeless people. Garcetti said the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority will be asked to identify 4,000 people throughout the county who are most at risk from the virus because of their age or medical conditions.

People in shelters who have virus symptoms will be taken to receive medical care, Garcetti said.

To date, the city hasn’t confirmed any virus cases among homeless people, who are difficult to test and treat because they may move frequently or refuse medical care. However, “they are the ones who disproportionately could die as a result of this crisis,” Garcetti said.

The city also has set up hundreds of hand-washing stations and mobile toilets at homeless encampments and the City Council voted Tuesday to suspend an ordinance requiring homeless people to take down their tents during the day so that transients can at least shelter there.

The California Department of Public Health said Wednesday that the state now has 13 deaths related to the virus and more than 700 confirmed cases. More than 11,900 people are self-monitoring after returning from overseas.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continued to affect virtually every facet of Californians’ lives as businesses shut down, either because they weren’t considered “essential” under shelter-in-place health orders or for lack of customers as streets turned into ghost towns.

Newsom said that the state had received 80,000 claims for unemployment on Tuesday, compared to the usual rate of about 2,000 per day.

The governor has issued a series of emergency orders as the crisis spreads. Last week he urged all people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions to stay inside. He also limited the size of gatherings to 250 people and called for the shutdown of bars, movie theaters, fitness centers and other gathering places, and for restaurants to only serve to-go orders.

With virtually all of the state’s children out of school because of closures, Newsom suspended standardized testing this spring. And with the economy shedding jobs he waived certain reporting requirements for businesses making mass layoffs.

Newsom said he will not issue a statewide lockdown on people’s movements, preferring to allow local governments to make those decisions. And many have enacted tighter restrictions.

Napa and Solano on Wednesday joined at least 12 other Northern California counties — an area home to about 10 million people and including all of the San Francisco Bay Area — in requiring residents to stay home and go out only for essential purposes such as trips to grocery stores and to jobs in health care and other industries deemed critical.

In Southern California, the city of Palm Springs enacted similar restrictions. Los Angeles, San Diego and other major population centers in the region have not gone that far but have urged people to remain at home as much as possible.

Although Newsom hasn’t ordered school closures, local authorities have done so. The governor said nearly 99% of the state’s K-12 schools are shuttered and could remain so for the rest of the school year.

David De Leon, whose son is an eighth-grader in the Southern California city of Santa Ana, said he was shocked by the announcement, which would mean that so-called distance learning would be required for the rest of the school year.

“I don’t know if it’s viable,” De Leon said. “To throw it out for everyone to use until the end of the school year I think is unreasonable.”

In Los Angeles, Filiberto Gonzalez, 45, said his three children have been in touch daily with their teachers and have an hour to four hours per day of work they can do on an existing online platform that supplemented classes. But the prospect of moving to an entirely online system raises a slew of challenges few were expecting.

“This whole process started with ‘OK, we’re going to be away from school for two weeks, take this material with you, here’s a Chromebook,’” he said. “The news that came (Tuesday) was a real shock to a lot of us.”

For areas not sheltering in place, state and national parks remained an alternative to sitting on the couch, but with limitations.

California State Parks announced it is temporarily closing all its campgrounds but trails and beaches remain open. Visitors were reminded to maintain social distancing.

However, hundreds of people in climbing gear swarmed some of the most popular climbing rocks in the West. The tiny mountain towns dotting the Sierra Nevada range asked that they go home lest they carry the new corona virus to rural Inyo and Mono counties, which so far haven’t recorded a single case. The virus could overwhelm Inyo County’s two hospitals, which have fewer than 100 beds between them, the county’s sheriff, Jeff Hollowell, said Wednesday.

Those who can’t make it outside have an online alternative to enjoy California’s coming spring.

In the tiny desert town of Borrego Springs, which draws throngs of tourists when rains bring a “super bloom” of wildflowers, residents are making videos and photographs of the evolving landscape and posting them on a web page called ” Borrego Outside For People Inside.”

“We hope it brings people a little bit of diversion, of happiness, a feeling of actually being here,” said Mike McElhatton, program director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association.

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Associated Press journalists Amy Taxin in Santa Ana and Julie Watson in San Diego and John Rogers in Los Angeles contributed to this story. Antczak reported from Los Angeles.

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