Omicron Surge Shuts Down Local Government Services Across California

The San Jose City Hall permit office is closed due to the pandemic. Photo by Martin do Nascimento for CalMatters

While there is no good time for a city to be hit by a global pandemic and successive waves of highly contagious variants, Eastvale in Riverside County has been sorely hammered at the wrong time.

At the dawn of a new commercial development, when Eastvale sought to attract business to its modest main street, omicron threw a stifling blanket over the town’s bureaucracy. In the state’s second-youngest city, encouraging growth is a top priority. That means streamlining the creaky, byzantine civic process of approving permits, scheduling inspections, and issuing business licenses.

But the best of intentions stood no chance against omicron, which decimated the statewide government workforce that collects trash, keeps libraries open, and allows homes and businesses to be built.

Maintaining Eastvale’s permit pipeline is critical, Mayor Clint Lorimore said, but so far the city can’t keep up. Obtaining a building permit now takes more than twice as long as before COVID-19. “Omicron has absolutely had an impact on our timelines in terms of permitting,” he said.

Across California, town halls and other government offices are closed to the public or have reduced hours as authorities scramble to keep a vast bureaucracy operating while those who work are sick at home.

“Everyone handles it differently,” said Lorimore, who is also president of the Southern California Association of Governments. “It has certainly been difficult.”

State, county and city officials operate in an ever-changing landscape where public health concerns sometimes trump the proper functioning of government. Sacramento County health officials — along with other jurisdictions — have ordered a suspension of in-person public meetings, meaning state boards and other agencies and organizations are holding meetings online.

But as face-to-face interactions give way to reliance on computers to navigate government services, problems arise in reaching the disadvantaged – those without computers or internet access. , who are fluent in English or have disabilities that make it difficult to operate online.

State agencies say they are affected by omicron, but still work. State Parks are open to visitors, for example.

Even the much-criticized Department of Motor Vehicles says it didn’t miss a beat – only one of the state’s nearly 200 DMV offices had to close due to understaffing, and that was only for a day.

Wait times at some DMV offices have increased, said Anita Gore, deputy director of communications for the DMV, but the average waiting time statewide for walk-in customers has improved: Last week, the average wait was 22 minutes, she said. That’s two minutes longer than December 2020, but 17 minutes longer than December 2019, before the pandemic, according to the DMV’s annual report to the state legislature.

Many cities have moved to online service or in-person tours by appointment only. In San Jose, libraries no longer offer indoor reading programs and other events, although patrons can walk in to borrow books.

However, many cities have maintained essential services such as garbage collection, which often depend on outside contractors. But Long Beach has warned residents that due to the high number of omicron cases among workers, they could face delays in a host of services, including trash pickup, street sweeping and nest repairs- of chicken.

Los Angeles’ planning department, which said it has a nearly 20% staff vacancy rate, is trying to streamline affordable housing projects, which are a key issue for the city and a priority for Governor Gavin Newsom.

In Los Angeles’ efforts to avoid building permit delays, contractors can now drop hard copies of plans in boxes outside the planning department, and the city has set up an online system to examine them.

Huntington Beach has closed its town hall since the first week of January, when “a significant number of our employees returned (from Christmas vacation) with positive test results,” city spokeswoman Jennifer Carey said. . “We want to eliminate the contact potential.”

The city now offers drop boxes for residents to pay fees and fines. “There are many tools and policies put in place for the pandemic that we are currently using, and it ended up working for the best. It showed cities a potentially better way to manage,” Carey said.

For example, the city has adopted an online system that allows clients applying for permits for a variety of projects and activities to track the status of their documents. Applicants can see “up-to-the-second status updates from each department, upload and download documents and plans electronically, and get contact information for questions about their project for each department,” according to the Huntington Beach Permit Services Department.

Eastvale hopes the labor disruption will not discourage future development. The city of 73,000, which was incorporated in 2010, bills itself as the gateway to the Inland Empire, an area teeming with warehouses and online distribution centers. Eastvale is home to a million square foot Amazon warehouse and the city’s first hotel is currently under construction.

Processing a building permit in Eastvale took an average of 12 days in 2019, but last year it dropped to 31 days, according to the city’s most recent data. Processing delays were compounded by a 17% increase in applications for home improvement permits, business licenses and other city approvals.

Peter Tateishi, Managing Director of California Associated General Contractorssaid it’s too early to tell if omicron has scrubbed complex authorization machines.

Some code enforcement and inspections have gone virtual, which he says adds efficiency and, in some cases, speed to the complicated process. “We’ve heard that some of the online changes (for building permits) have been great,” Tateishi said.

With builders using smartphone cameras on site, inspectors can work from an office and see multiple job sites in the time it would take to visit just a few sites. “They can see things in real time,” he said.

However, the focus on a digital world risks leaving many people behind. Ventura County Supervisor Carmen Ramirez said officials had to work hard to reach poor or minority residents who may not qualify for grants or other assistance.

“Not everyone has a computer, and even if they do, if they don’t speak English, it can be difficult,” Ramirez said. “You have to pay attention to people who don’t have access to broadband or the Internet. We need bilingual and useful services for the visually and hearing impaired.

Ramirez, who has two of his four employees with omicron, said even with the obstacles posed by the virus, the government still needs to do its job. “If you’re going to serve people with our taxes, you have to serve people,” she said.

The digital divide is also a concern for Lorimore in Eastvale, where 79% of the population is made up of people of color. Omicron’s impacts expose inequities in how government reaches those it serves, he said. And they also reveal how cities are all being hit hard, regardless of size or wealth.

“Everybody’s in the same boat,” Lorimore said. Eastvale’s city offices — located in a storefront in a strip mall — are closed the same way major city halls in California are closed.

Yet in these trying times, other jurisdictions might be encouraged by the town of Eastvale’s modest unofficial slogan: “Some days we win, some days we learn, and yet we still try.”

Cal Matters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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