City of Berkeley officials answer community’s questions on COVID-19 during virtual town hall

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Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín answered residents’ questions and detailed the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic during a virtual town hall Saturday.

The event began with an update on city case numbers from Berkeley city health officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez. As of April 16, 795 Berkeley residents have been successfully tested, and of those, 40 tested positive. The total number of cases in the city is currently 42, with the additional two cases coming from two Grand Princess passengers who received treatment in Berkeley.

City manager Dee Williams-Ridley also joined Hernandez in assisting the mayor to answer questions, and Arreguín praised them for their dedication during the pandemic.

“I’m really proud to be mayor of Berkeley at this time and be part of this organization with dedicated, hardworking, brilliant staff who have been working night and day to keep our community safe,” Arreguín said during the event.

Hernandez said Berkeley’s central testing site, which the city runs in partnership with UC Berkeley and LifeLong Medical Care, is working to produce COVID-19 test results faster. She said the site’s tests are currently prioritized for essential workers and symptomatic residents, but the site is hoping to expand testing as early as next week.

Arreguín said of those tested, one confirmed positive case was from someone living in a Berkeley homeless shelter. He also added that the city is looking to open a new indoor shelter in which physical distancing could be ensured.

In the meantime, Williams-Ridley said the city has successfully transported 18 “medically-fragile” individuals experiencing homelessness to a Berkeley testing site and to hotel rooms in Oakland.

“We’re going to continue doing that work,” Williams-Ridley said during the event. “We’ve started with our most vulnerable in some of our larger encampments.”

The city is currently leasing properties to house vulnerable individuals during the pandemic. Arreguín said the state may be able to play a large role in helping local governments acquire these properties long term to continue providing shelter for homeless communities even after social distancing orders lift.

Hernandez said the city is working to identify ways to loosen restrictions that will maintain the “highest social benefit” and the “lowest risk of transmission,” in accordance with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s six-point plan.

Hernandez also reminded viewers of the order issued Friday requiring all Berkeley residents to wear facial coverings when in public. Williams-Ridley said masks will ideally be available at front desks in buildings around the city and provided to police and fire departments when orders lift. She also added that the city is interested in donations of non-N95 and nonsurgical masks in order to preserve those masks for medical staff.

Arreguín reminded viewers that the social distancing measures and facial covering requirements are both simply part of the city’s attempt to reduce the number of cases, but many people will still be susceptible to contracting the coronavirus when the shelter-in-place order lifts.

“We can’t assume that we’re going to go back to the way we were before this pandemic,” Arreguín said during the event. “Our world is forever changed.”

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.