Chico leaders explain COVID-19 emergency declaration for public and private sectors, talk homelessness

Mark Orme answers questions during the State of the City forum last January hosted by the Chico Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

In her first week back as Chico’s mayor, Ann Schwab expended considerable effort communicating with residents left reeling by recent events.

Schwab became mayor for a third time—she served back-to-back terms in 2008-12—when the City Council passed a vote of no confidence in Randall Stone and replaced him last Wednesday evening (March 25). That afternoon, Stone held a news conference about the coronavirus outbreak on the steps outside City Council chambers and declared a city emergency, which the council ratified in the meeting with Schwab mayor and Stone a councilman.

One Facebook post at a time, sometimes one person at a time, Schwab has sought to correct misconceptions about the city’s action: namely, what the declaration does and doesn’t do.

The emergency declaration does give additional authority to City Manager Mark Orme, but does not give away any authority of the City Council. It does add to city ordinances and policies to orders by Gov. Gavin Newsom, but does not impose restrictions stricter than the state’s.

In fact, Chico officials have made conscious decisions to guide with loose reins rather than rein in citizens. Phone interviews with Schwab, Orme and Police Chief Mike O’Brien revealed policies aimed at encouraging compliance via education over enforcement—though the city will cite egregious offenders of governmental mandates to close businesses classified as nonessential and not to congregate in large groups.

Schwab has positioned herself front and center in informing the public.

“What the pandemic highlights to me is there’s so much unknown and uncertainty, and that creates some anxiety; we very much want to know what everything means,” she said. “It’s fortunately very infrequent that a city would have to have a resolution declaring a local emergency, so it’s natural that people are concerned about what it is and have questions.”

As Orme explained, and Schwab confirmed, the declaration primarily gives the city manager, in the capacity of emergency operations director, more latitude to make decisions. That enables Orme to respond to an ever-evolving crisis more readily than he could if he had to seek council members’ approval at formal meetings. The council will meet monthly instead of biweekly and only consider matters essential to government operations.

“Really what [the declaration] does is it enhances the level of flexibility in order to make good decisions quicker,” Orme said.

Schwab said Orme routinely keeps council members informed with at least two updates a week; now, that’s up to twice daily.

With and since the declaration, the city has instituted a number of measures with tangible impacts. Downtown parking meters require no change, so customers more readily can pick up food from restaurants, though time limits still apply. The city has waived credit card fees for payments normally accepted in person at City Hall, which is closed to the public except by appointment.

Most significantly, ahead of a similar order from Newsom, Chico instituted protections for tenants—residential and commercial—who are unable to pay rent due to illness, care-taking or work stoppage. Tenants have up to six months to repay back rent once the declaration expires; that date is May 31 but extends in accordance with the governor’s order.

The city already had reduced access to municipal buildings and city-owned property—thus, the revised schedule for council meetings, as well as for commissions and boards. The emergency declaration incorporated that action, plus bolstered Orme’s authority for canceling events. For places of worship, the council resolution urges religious leaders, “in the strongest possible terms, to limit gatherings on their premises and to explore and implement ways to practice their faiths while observing social distancing practices.”

Chico has no curfew per se, just the order (city and state) that “all persons are to stay at their place of residence except persons as necessary to maintain continuity of operations at essential facilities and sectors.” Those include food, health care, communications and transportation.

Both Orme and O’Brien, who retires as police chief June 5, say the law enforcement approach to this crisis emphasizes health and safety. Complaints about so-called nonessential businesses remaining open fall to code enforcement. Police officers report potential violations to code enforcement, cite violators they find serious, but otherwise gear patrols toward crime, traffic and 911 calls.

“This is a health order—it’s to protect people,” O’Brien said. “We are not out stopping people and asking what they are doing, or why they are out at a particular hour. I, quite frankly, think that would be unconstitutional, and we’re not a totalitarian society. We are a nation of freedom, with a Constitution, and we want to protect both.

“At the same time, we want to keep people safe, and we want to educate them on the need to heed the governor’s order. He himself has said this is about [voluntary] compliance, and I completely agree with the governor and the city manager on this.”

Orme said he drafted “a nice letter” for code enforcement officers to send to businesses that have remained open in violation of Newsom’s order. Both he and the police chief said the majority of Chicoans are complying, or do when informed.

Schwab praised the compliance and those front-line workers risking exposure to coronavirus to serve the community, from grocery store cashiers to medical providers to first responders, “out there every day, working so hard.” As for her council colleagues, the mayor said: “We may be coming at different angles, but we’re all working to support the community we all care so much for.”

Orme told the CN&R that, at the City Council meeting Tuesday (April 7), he plans to unveil a “bucket list” of priorities, explaining: “I’ve tried to distill down what we are focused on.”

A primary focus, he said, remains homelessness. The coronavirus crisis “sealed the deal” for Orme to hire Joy Amaro as the city’s homeless solutions coordinator. Amaro, executive director of both the Torres Shelter and the True North Housing Alliance, started Wednesday.

“You have very ardent and emotionally driven people on both sides of the argument,” Orme said. He praised Amaro’s ability to connect community members and incorporate various perspectives, including her experience, into assessments. The council has asked city staff to explore the feasibility of establishing a campground for tent and car camping.

“I’m just not going to bring forth a solution that has not been properly vetted,” Orme said. “That’s hard, because we want to see things get done—but what I’ve seen oftentimes is if we emotionally respond to something, there are unfortunate consequences that can come to something, those unanticipated consequences. I’m glad I’ve got a professional on board who can evaluate those.”

Schwab heartily praised the move, calling Amaro’s hiring “a bright light in the COVID-19 pandemic in the city of Chico.” The mayor anticipates the council will convene for a special session before the regularly scheduled May meeting to consider proposals addressed by Amaro.

“Being careful and thoughtful and having a reasonable assuredness that something will succeed doesn’t mean that some of these solutions will take a long time in vetting out all the possibilities,” Schwab said. “We are trying to act as fast as we can.”

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you, CN&R staff, for continuing to work without a paycheck. This is an excellent article and brings your readers up to date on the City’s response to the pandemic. I already donated to your efforts (truly wish it could have been more) and am encouraging others to do so. My college degree is in journalism, so I especially admire your dedication to keeping our community informed.

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