The Activist

The coronavirus action edition

Issue 285: 04-11-2020

In this issue:

Coronavirus: the ultimate stress test
Leadership in a public health crisis
Coronavirus practical resources
Homeowners, renters & small businesses need real help in the "Pause Economy"
Emergency action for housing, jails
Standing up for healthcare workers
Racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality
How we lost Doctors hospital
Join RPA's Council Action Team
Pt. Molate - the final battle?

Coronavirus: the ultimate stress test

In medicine, a stress test shows doctors how your heart works during physical activity, revealing potential problems with blood flow within your heart. Today, the coronavirus is acting like a stress test on all aspects of our economic and political systems, revealing problems of injustice everywhere.

For example, this week studies emerged about the racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality rates -- the latest manifestation of our country’s deep problem of structural racism. We have also seen how Congress has bailed out big corporations, but has rolled out a messy and inadequate program to help small businesses, reveals the problems of our captured political system.

Then there is the phenomenon of Disaster Capitalism. While most of us are sheltering in place, there are some who want to take advantage of the chaos, distraction and fear for their own benefit. This is especially the case for corporations and their political allies who want to push through controversial or unpopular decisions.

On the federal level, the Trump Administration pressed ahead with its long-sought rule to weaken air pollution standards for automobiles. David Roberts, in a Vox article titled “Gutting fuel economy standards during a pandemic is peak Trump” sums it up like this: “There’s no need for [the weakend standards], no demand for it, and no justification for it. Yet somehow, even during a frantic, understaffed, and inadequate response to a pandemic, with so many other areas of governance and policy being neglected, Trump’s people found time to finalize this rule.”

In Richmond, we have our own version of politicians and profiteers using this time of crisis to push through a highly unpopular proposal – Pt. Molate. Here we have a potentially devastating deal where poor and working-class Richmond residents may end up subsidizing luxury housing for decades.

The silver lining to this crisis is that, if we stay vigilant continue to advocate, it may result in steps towards broader reform and ultimately a more just and sustainable society. For example, nurses and clinicians have been long calling for safe staffing levels (see for example, NUHW’s 2019 strike for more mental health workers at Kaiser) -- which everyone seems to agree on during this health crisis. Similarly, criminal justice reform groups have campaigned for decades against a system that incarcerates far too many and creates crowded jails; we are now seeing government at all levels finally expand release criteria in response to the pandemic.

All of us wish this pandemic were over. But we shouldn’t hope for things to “get back to normal.” After all, normal life was too full of racism, injustice, vulnerability and oppression. Instead, we need to “get back to better.” Indeed, at the same time SEIU-UHW is fiercely advocating for Personal Protective Equipment for their hospital workers, they are also calling for broader things like freezing mortgage and rent payments, and beginning the transition to a statewide Green New Deal.

“Wildfires, drought, and other devastating impacts of climate change are too much for our state to bear on top of an epidemic,” they say. “We have the opportunity to create a new, sustainable way of life in the state. Now is the time.” We couldn't agree more.

- Michelle Chan, editor

[Photo credit: National Nurses United]

Leadership in a public health crisis

Because of coronavirus, as of 3/10/2020, a State of Emergency was declared in Richmond, CA by Laura Snideman, City Manager.

In a discussion about what might happen to voting in a crisis such as this pandemic, Richmond’s City Clerk Pamela Christian says her office will do its best to push for individuals to register to vote-by-mail for November 2020 election. In coordination with the County, they have installed a permanent vote-by-mail box in the walk way in front of the Council parking lot. The office also wisely asked for other suggestions that might create success for voting in November.

At the same time, the Mayor has shown a deficit in leadership. He has forwarded a series of emails from various sources. And at this critical time, he did take time to pen a fresh April 1 article negatively discussing the RPA.

Leadership in a crisis finds solutions and partners that are outside of the normally limiting proverbial box; it recognizes that in managing immediate tasks, what is needed is a fix to the broken system that already exist rather than expecting such a system to solve never-before-seen problems of a highly complex nature.

We need our city’s leaders to provide safety-critical city employees (police, fire) and county employees (EMS) regular testing for COVID-19, even if exhibiting no symptoms, to prevent an outbreak that could result in dangerously low staffing levels or a greater risk of transmission to the public.

Our leaders need to work to ensure health and safety for our most vulnerable citizens. Our community needs to receive regular and timely information that is guided with facts rather than fears. And, we need leaders to engage with our community to promote healthy habits.

On a practical level, the City should install and maintain portable toilets, hand washing stations, and hand sanitizer stations throughout for use by people who are unhoused. People without shelter should also be housed  in now-empty hotel and motel rooms in order to shelter in place.

On a policy level, Richmond should extend its eviction moratorium and institute rent amnesty through June or beyond. And in the longer-term, the City needs to fight for a hospital to serve our city, and foster a local economy that can be more resilient to these kinds of crises, including healthy, local food systems.

This pandemic and catastrophe is revealing the underbelly of problems we have neglected to adequately address: the cost of housing, feeding and sheltering those who are unhoused, healthcare for our community, and the like. We need to build a future where residents are working with City leaders to make sure decisions are sound. We need our leaders to look outside the box and extend aid to those most in need in Richmond -- immediately.

- BK Williams

[Photo: From East Bay Times, “Coronavirus: Richmond’s Craneway Pavilion to be used as medical facility,” 2 April 2020]

Coronavirus practical resources

The following are several resources that may be helpful to you and your neighbors as Richmond faces the coronavirus pandemic:

Healthcare

  • Typical symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, shortness of breath. If you have emergency symptoms (difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion or inability to arouse; bluish lips or face) call the Contra Costa Health Advice Nurse: 877-661-6230
  • Lifelong Medical will be providing no-charge COVID-19 testing (including for undocumented residents) but you must be enrolled with Lifelong as your primary care provider, have symptoms and must call 510-981-4100 first to see if you're eligible for testing or to enroll with Lifelong.
  • CCC Health Services is accepting donations of personal protective equipment and supplies for health workers.

Wage replacement/ unemployment

  • The Deparment of Labor has a Fact Sheet explaining new employee paid leave benefits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
  • State of California EDD has published a COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions, with updated information on Disability and Paid Family Leave benefits, and Unemployment insurance benefits.
  • See also California EDD’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which covers business owners, self-employed individuals, and independent contractors.

Food

  • The West Contra Costa Unified School District has expanded its student meal program during the COVID-19 school closure, adding supper to the breakfast and lunch pick up. Children 18 years of age and younger, regardless of socio-economic status or school of attendance, can now pick up breakfast, lunch and supper from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 17 locations in the District. Volunteers are needed to assemble and distribute meals (sign up here).
  • The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano County provides 15-20 pounds of free fresh produce to low-income families and individuals twice a month at nine locations in Richmond. (Please bring two bags with handles.) They also provide groceries twice a month to low-income individuals aged 55 or older (at three locations). The food bank is seeing a 50 percent increase in people attending their food distributions; they welcome volunteers in at their Concord warehouse, and are asking for monetary donations.

Housing

  • The City has a moratorium on evictions for tenants who can’t pay rent due to COVID-19 (tenants have to pay owed rent within six months after the period of emergency ends). Affected Tenants need to (1) notify Landlords in writing within 30 days of the date rent is due of their inability to pay rent and (2) state the ways in which they have been financially impacted and attach supporting documentation to support their claims. See sample letters that tenants can send their landlords in English and Spanish. See also a COVID-19 and Evictions Fact Sheet (English and Spanish). 

Childcare

  • Child care centers/homes are allowed to stay open to care for children of essential workers, including those working in gas stations, pharmacies, grocery stores, food banks, take-out and delivery, banks, laundry, agriculture, healthcare, transportation, communications, essential state and local government functions. Go to cocokids.org to find childcare. Families can also fill out a form for child care subsidy and paying for care. 

Domestic abuse

  • Domestic abuse has risen worldwide since the coronavirus. WOMAN, Inc. is a referral service for victims of domestic violence. They run a 24/7 hotline at 1-877-384-3578; http://www.womaninc.org

Hate crimes

  • If you have experienced or witnessed any anti-Asian hate crime in the wake of COVID-19 contact the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council at (213) 239-0300 or info@a3pcon.org.

Register to Vote by Mail

  • Register to vote by mail with Contra Costa County. Richmond now has a permanent vote-by-mail box in the walk way in front of the City Council parking lot. 

[Photo: Kennedy and Richmond High School bike club members staff the Grab 'N Go table, distributing school meals six days a week from 12-2pm. Courtesy of Rich City Rides]

Homeowners, renters and small business need real help in the "Pause Economy"

coronaeviction.pngCalifornia organizations are working to get the state government to cancel mortgage payments and rental payments for residential and small commercial properties. The trade group for big apartment owners estimates that nationwide, 31% of renters missed their April payments and that it is expected to get much worse.  

Confusing and inadequate rules

The public expects the government to prevent landlords from raising rents and threatening tenants with eviction when shelter-in place is required to deal with the coronavirus. But Governor Newsom’s order only postpones eviction, and has conditions so confusing that the California State Judicial Council, which makes up the rules for the courts, issued its own rules. These rules suspend all eviction cases until 90 days after the state of emergency is ended. Unfortunately, this situation still allows for landlords to issue eviction notices to tenants, which will certainly terrorize those who do not fully understand how the legal system works. The Richmond City Council attempted to address this at its April 7 meeting, but left provisions that will allow landlords to continue threatening residential tenants and small businesses. Nothing was done for homeowners who can’t afford mortgage payments. And none of this is any help to undocumented residents.

Moratorium by itself makes it worse

A state or city delay for evictions for nonpayment of mortgage payments or rents could actually make the situation worse. In three months, or whenever the crisis is declared “past,” employers will be very slow to call people back to work. People will have exhausted their emergency savings and sources of emergency help. Small businesses will have limited capital to get started again especially when people have little money and are hesitant to buy.

With no reserves and no or reduced future income, people will still owe three months on their mortgage -- immediately due -- with no protection against eviction. A moratorium on rent, without one on mortgage payments will devastate small landlords. And since we will likely come out of the “pause” slowly, people will hit their crisis points at different times. It will be harder then to get the government to take action; meanwhile, politicians can claim they addressed the problem with the moratorium.

What cities must do

Because the federal and state governments are slow to act, and seem to be more concerned with protecting corporations than people, cities like Richmond should take the lead by declaring bold but common-sense action to meet the crisis.  Richmond should declare simultaneously that, during this state of emergency, there will be:

  • Suspension of all mortgage payments
  • Suspension of all small businesses and residential rents
  • Financial assistance and help filing for coronavirus aid for small landlords
  • A call for state government to make these statewide

As in rent control and minimum wage, it was cities taking action that forced the state government to act, if only to prevent a patchwork of regulations.

Campaigns for local action like this are developing nationally. Statewide ACCE Action has organized a campaign that includes a petition to Governor Newsom and what they call a Rent Strike for May 1. Housing Now and 140 other organizations have sent a letter to the Governor calling for the suspension of mortgages and rent. Some big corporations like Cheesecake Company and Staples have announced that they are suspending rent payments.

The Richmond City Council should lead the way as it has done before.

Helping small landlords

Mom and Pop landlords should not be the victims of the “pause” any more than their renters. They will be helped if mortgage payments are also cancelled. But beyond that, the city has to put special emphasis on providing city assistance to these landlords by giving immediate financial aid as well as by helping them apply for the federal CARES Act (Congress’s third coronavirus aid package) money that is going to small businesses like small landlords. Similarly, the city can help small businesses negotiate the red tape in getting other types of federal aid. Large landlords and bank have the resources to apply for these resources to compensate for their losses.

Is it legal?

The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley  argues that cities do have the power to act under emergency conditions. Courts have declared that in a state of emergency, local governments can legitimately suspend normal constitutional rights as for example in cases of flood, fire, and disease.

If the government has the power to stop people from operating their businesses or selling their labor (i.e. going to work), then it should also have the power to stop banks from operating their businesses and collecting mortgage money, or landlords from collecting rent on stores that are not doing business.  “Putting the economy in a coma” or “pressing the pause button on the economy” requires new rules. It is up to the government at all levels to act to protect the vulnerable 90% “as long as these rules are reasonably related to the accomplishment of a legitimate governmental purpose.” Some of this may be sorted out in the courts afterwards, but in general cities have had immunity from good faith actions taken in emergency situations.

Emergency action for housing, jails

Our friends at the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment are urging activists to speak up for at-risk tenants and incarcerated folks in Contra Costa county. Reporting out on the March 31 Contra Costa Board of Supervisors meeting, Dave Sharples of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment wrote that ACCE and other community allies were “bitterly disappointed when public comments poured in from around the county that only seemed to fall on deaf ears.”

Over 100 people submitted moving testimonies and pleas that the Board move swiftly to enact a county-wide eviction moratorium, to demand more protective gear for workers, and to release inmates from the jails to keep them safe. Over 65 labor and community organizations signed a letter urging an eviction moratorium. 

But the Board simply suggested that the Sheriff was doing a fine job with the jails and nothing really needed to change. They also expressed no haste in taking up a county-wide eviction moratorium. They said they would "discuss the possibility" at their next regularly scheduled meeting in mid-April.

We find this utterly unacceptable in this economic and health crisis, to take a tone of "business as usual", and to be so dismissive to the cries of thousands of people in this county.

Contra Costa Board of Supervisors – eviction moratorium

The next Board of Supervisors meeting is on April 14th. To submit comments fill in this webform and click Item D3, the eviction moratorium. A sample comment is below:

I am writing to urge you to pass a temporary moratorium on evictions. (INSERT PERSONAL STORY OR PERSPECTIVE HERE). The ordinance should put a moratorium on all evictions except those that are necessary for health and safety. The rent accrued during the state of emergency should not be the basis of an eviction down the road. The ordinance should include protections for commercial tenants (non-profits and small local businesses). The ordinance should place a freeze on rent increases during the shelter in place order. Thank you!  

Contra Costa Board of Supervisors – county jails

ACCE and others are also concerned about an outbreak in our county's jails. To submit comments to the CCC BoS, fill in this webform and click “General Public Comment.” A sample comment is below:

My name is _______ and I am a resident of ___________. I am writing because I am concerned about an outbreak of coronavirus in our county's jails. Local jails were not built to allow for social distancing. We must release incarcerated people now to ensure our community's safety. That's why I am calling on you, the Sheriff and the District Attorney to immediately release the elderly, juveniles and those within six months of the end of their sentence. 

[Photo: Activists call for release of incarcerated people from overcrowded jails. Arnold Ventures]

Standing up for healthcare workers

There are many workers on the “front lines” of the coronavirus pandemic – from farmworkers to cashiers to janitors and others – but the unions representing health care workers have been some of the most vocal, militant and effective groups pushing for adequate and equitable response to the coronavirus crisis.

Some of their leading calls has been around ensuring adequate Personal Protective Equipment and safe staffing levels.

This week, Governor Newsom announced that California will procure 200 million masks each month for the state, a huge victory. But SEIU-UHW (United Healthcare Workers West) stresses that health workers still need other essential equipment, like isolation gowns, gloves, and face shields. Plus, action urgently needs to be taken at the federal level and UHW and NNU are both asking people to demand that Congress and the Trump administration get everyone the PPE they need.  

At the same time SEIU-UHW is demanding personal protective equipment, they also are acknowledging and calling for broader reforms to promote health and resilience, including releasing those in immigrant detention and low-risk jailed or imprisoned Californians; housing all unhoused Californians; re-opening all hospitals closed in the last five years (a demand that would include re-opening Doctor’s Hospital) and establishing single payer health care in the state.

Racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality

Several news reports have recently emerged showing that COVID-19 is disproportionately hitting Black communities and communities of color. For example, the Washington Post this week revealed that “counties that are majority-black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.”

Many groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and National Nurses United are calling on the federal government release race and ethnicity details on coronavirus testing, patient and outcomes data.

The California Nurses Association highlighted a report from Los Angeles County health officials that African Americans account for 57 percent of the county’s COVID-19 deaths despite being just 9 percent of the county’s population.

According to NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN,

Multiple factors likely contribute to the widespread racial disparities, said Castillo. Those include higher levels of lack of insurance, fewer healthcare services and other resources, as well as higher levels of preexisting health conditions, which are major risk factors for COVID-19 deaths…

Additionally, due to discriminatory economic factors, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately concentrated among people who are still working in “essential” services and are less likely to have had access to the limited supply of testing, including low-wage grocery stores and restaurants, public transit, and many lower wage healthcare workers. It has been reported, for example, that in Philadelphia, higher income residents have been tested for the virus by as much as 600 percent more than lower income residents.

refinery_twilight.pngAnother study released this week sheds more light on the racial disparity in COVID-19 mortality: pollution. A Harvard Medical School study released this week crunched the numbers on a relationship that many people already assumed: populations (usually lower income, minority communities) that live near air pollution sources, such as refineries, suffer from long-term respiratory conditions that put them at higher risk from COVIID-19.

In particular, the study finds that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM 2.5 (in the Bay Area, the Richmond refinery is one of the leading stationary sources of this type of pollution) is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. As summarized by the New York Times,

The paper found that if Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram per cubic meter, over the past 20 years, the borough would most likely have seen 248 fewer Covid-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.

Over all, the research could have significant implications for how public health officials choose to allocate resources like ventilators and respirators as the coronavirus spreads.

[Graphic: Washington Post]

How we lost Doctors Hospital

As BK Williams notes in her essay, “this pandemic and catastrophe is revealing the underbelly of problems we have neglected to adequately address: the cost of housing, feeding and sheltering those who are unhoused, healthcare for our community, and the like.”

For most Richmond residents, the only intensive care units that can handle people seriously ill with COVID-19 are in Martinez and Berkeley. (Richmond Kaiser is very small and these services are available only to members.)  Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo was a full-service facility that served the whole community including the working poor and indigent residents

How we lost Doctors is a long and – for many -- tragic story. The root causes are that current government programs do not pay enough for medical care to keep those hospitals which mainly serve uninsured afloat. Underfunded for several years, Doctors amassed debt, with no path to move forward without financial help. A plan was put in place to provide financial aid from a number of sources including state government, other hospitals, and a parcel tax. A key part of the plan was for Chevron Richmond to put up $27 million dollars as part of the roughly $100 million community benefits package for the major refinery “modernization” program that Chevron was anxious to start. Chevron’s contribution made sense because Chevron pollution contributed to many of the chronic medical conditions of nearby residents. The 2012 fire put a huge burden on local medical facilities and future accidents could do worse. Chevron’s contribution, combined with those from the other sources, would have put Doctors on a solid financial footing. 

Unfortunately, Chevron was unwilling to come forward on its own and the Richmond City Council was unwilling to make saving Doctors Hospital part of its $90 million dollar community benefits package.

Mayor McLaughlin and Councilmember Jovanka Beckles pressed the Council. But a self-selected committee of Tom Butt, Jael Myrick and Jim Rogers had a closed-door meeting with Chevron and struck a deal for a Community Benefits Agreement that did not include support for Doctors. When it came back to the Council, they prevented McLaughlin and Beckles from even bringing forward for a vote their amendment to include Doctors, and pushed through the deal they made with Chevron.

For more information on the story of how we lost Doctor’s Hospital, see the East Bay Express article by Sam Levin and the white paper by the 2014 Team Richmond candidates.

[Photo from Contra Costa Health Services, and Chevron 2012 accident by hilaryh via Instagram]

Join RPA's Council Action Team

Below is a message from Laura Mangels of the Council Action Team, inviting folks to get involved. This is a great opportunity to get familiar with and involved in City-level coronavirus policy analysis.

We are the Council Action Team -- also known as the CAT -- and we work to support our council members as they prepare and strategize for each meeting. Our City Councilmembers must review up to dozens of items for each city council meeting, each containing up to hundreds of pages in attached documents -- it's a lot to keep up with! As a team, we review the agenda, discuss potential issues and opportunities, and coordinate with other local groups and experts to help shape key positions.

We'd love to have new members! Even if you don't have time to review the agenda, your perspective is greatly valued. And if you can't make the meeting times, but would like to join our team list just to be part of the conversation, we welcome that too. We especially need you in this time of crisis, as we work to support our council members in their efforts to protect the most vulnerable among us in these trying times.

We meet most Saturdays, from 11 am to 12:30. To get on the list, and for more information on how to join our team, get in touch with Laura. We look forward to having you!

Pt Molate - the final battle?

While most of us are sheltering in place, there are some who want to take advantage of the chaos and fear to move their agenda. This is especially the case for corporations and their political allies who want to push through controversial or unpopular decisions.

In Richmond, one of these decisions is the development of Pt. Molate. The public overwhelmingly supports a “Community Plan” for the site, rather than subsidizing the creation of an exclusive enclave for the wealthy. In the midst of the pandemic, RPA members passed a resolution on Pt. Molate which called on the City Council “To postpone all major decisions on Pt. Molate until the public can participate fully in the review and approval process.” (See resolution below)

Nevertheless, the future of Point Molate may well be decided over the next two months. The City Council’s deal with SunCal to permit a 2,040-unit housing development is going into Planning Commission review now, with the first step being the April 16th deadline for receiving comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report. Go to the Point Molate Alliance website for the latest information and help in making comments or writing letters to our Community Development Director on the DEIR or to our Planning Commission, City Council or City Manager.

Did you know?

  1. The City’s General Fund could lose $100 millionover thirty years because the property taxes will never cover the cost of a fire/police sub-station. And we may be asked to subsidize the infrastructure costs. This is insane!
  2. It could take 2 hours to get a stroke victim to John Muir during morning commute.
  3. It could take 90 minutes to get to work in San Rafael from Central Avenue or Hilltop.
  4. Point Molate has the healthiest eelgrass beds in SF Bay – nurseries for crab and fish, which are important to local fisherfolk.
  5. The San Pablo peninsula is home to the greatest number of ospreys in SF Bay.
  6. Our Supervisor, John Gioia, opposes the proposed project and wants to see the southern part of the property turned into a park.
  7. The City will end up in court yet again because
    • the Environmental Impact Report is inadequate
    • the EIR says the Community Plan was environmentally superior – and it had soccer fields as well as a park!
    • the proposed project violates federal, state, regional and City regulations and guidance for protecting habitat and limiting GHG emission increases

RPA members passed a resolution on March 28, 2020 urging the City Council to:

  • To postpone all major decisions on Pt. Molate until the public can participate fully in the review and approval process
  • To demand a full financial analysis and strategy to protect the City’s General Fund before making decisions
  • To reject the Draft SEIR as inadequate and demand a better analysis of known risks
  • To restrict development to the Winehaven District and create a park in the remainder of the property