Despite restricted budgets, the city and state are actively providing support and coming up with ideas on how to protect residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Berkeley officials and California state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, during a town hall Saturday.
Infection numbers in the city of Berkeley are becoming more stable, according to city health officer Lisa Hernandez. She added that only two lab-confirmed positive cases were reported to the city this week, putting the city’s numbers at 68 cases and one death.
Hernandez said she and the other Bay Area health officials are looking into implementing phase two of restarting economic activity in the region, which would include reopening parks and curbside pickup for retail stores. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the move for the state May 4.
“We are aligning with the governor in terms of the release of the restrictions; we’re just doing it a little slower,” Hernandez said during the event. “We’re specifically looking at the impact of this disease on our Bay Area community and we look different than some of the other parts of the state.”
The city is working to expand its testing capacity, according to Hernandez, who added that though testing rates are increasing, they are not where they need to be. She added that part of the shortcomings stem from a limited supply of swabs and trained personnel to conduct the swabbing tests in the city.
City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said the city is currently training 34 new personnel to conduct contact-tracing interviews.
“The way that we’re going to battle COVID-19 and win the battle right now is to identify and isolate individuals that have the disease,” Hernandez said during the event. “We need that workforce to interview individuals that are testing positive and making sure all of their contacts are aware and can quarantine as well.”
The city is also putting forth efforts to address homelessness during the pandemic, according to Williams-Ridley, including increasing testing in shelters for both residents and employees, visiting encampments to donate food and supplies and interviewing homeless individuals to determine their health needs.
Williams-Ridley said in the past week, city staff donated more than 1,500 meals, spoke to 135 individuals and tested five people for COVID-19.
“When I think about the amount of work that’s going out there, it’s still not enough,” Williams-Ridley said during the event. “We’re doing our best. We’re working harder to increase where we can.”
Despite city efforts, there is still a lot of economic need in the city, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín. To address some of this, Skinner said the state legislature is considering a plan to extend tax benefits to landlords who cooperate with their tenants for flexible payment plans.
She added that the plan would allow for tenants to have up to 10 years to pay off the missed rent payments and that the legislature will be considering the plan May 18.
“If you owe six months of rent, that is very hard to cover in a short period of time,” Skinner said. “Most people would be able to absorb the ability to pay over that period of time.”
The city of Berkeley is offering relief in part through the Berkeley Relief Fund, which hit the $1 million benchmark for donations this week, according to Arreguín.
He added that the city is exploring how to give out the next set of grants in the near future.
“We can’t keep up with the need,” Arreguín said during the event. “This is just one step the city is taking on its own even in a very impacted budgetary situation.”
Arreguín will be holding the next town hall May 23.