Supervisors support rental assistance, business grants, hazard pay in COVID-19 response

A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine shot is prepared.
A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine shot is prepared at the homeless shelter in the San Diego Convention Center on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021 in San Diego, CA.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The board rejected a proposal to immediately provide vaccines to law enforcement officers


County supervisors tackled several issues related to COVID-19 on Tuesday, Feb. 9, including grants for small businesses, hazard pay for county employees and rental assistance for people impacted by the disease.

A split board declined to support immediate vaccinations for law enforcement officers, and supervisors heard that the county’s supply of vaccines was running low.

In another item aimed at protecting health but not related to the pandemic, the board unanimously agreed to declare the Tijuana River Valley a public health crisis.

Among the items on COVID-19 relief, supervisors voted on a plan to provide an additional $52.2 million for rental assistance to county residents impacted by the pandemic.

The money is the county’s share of $1.5 billion generated by state Senate Bill 91 and is in addition to $48.8 million in federal funds the county received last month, bringing the total assistance to more than $100 million.

The funds will be available to renters throughout the county except for residents of the cities of San Diego, which received $49 million in the state’s allocation, and Chula Vista, which received $8 million.

Under state guidelines, priorities will be given to households at or below 50 percent of the area’s median income, which would be $57,000 for a family of four or $40,000 for a single person. People who have been unemployed for 90 days also will be given a priority.

Also under the state’s design, landlords who participate in the program will receive up to 80 percent of unpaid rent from April 2020 through March 2021, but must forgive the remaining 20 percent.

The board also unanimously agreed to prepare to distribute $30 million in grants to small businesses affected by the pandemic if the money becomes available from the federal government.

The grants would be an extension of a $47.5 million Small Business Stimulus Grant Program supervisors approved last year.

The item was proposed by Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer and Joel Anderson, who said that while Congress has not yet approved the funding, the action would make the county ready to distribute grants quickly when and if it does.

Supervisor Jim Desmond suggested the grants be available for businesses with up to 100 employees, but Lawson-Remer said they had intentionally set the number at 20 to help small businesses.

Last year’s stimulus program received 8,843 applicants but could provide only 7,668 grants.

Chairman Nathan Fletcher said limiting grants to businesses with 20 employees would reduce the number of applicants and increase the funding’s impact.

“We look for those businesses where a $2,500 or $5,000 grant will really make a difference, and those are small businesses,” he said.

While supervisors were in agreement with most actions related to COVID-19 relief, a proposal by Anderson to allow law enforcement officers to receive vaccines immediately failed with a 3-2 vote, with only Desmond supporting the idea.

The county is following the state’s tiered plan and is providing vaccines to health care workers and people 65 years and older, with law enforcement officers in the next tier.

Paramedics, lifeguards and EMTs also are receiving vaccines, and Anderson argued that law enforcement officers should be treated the same as them.

“They’re first responders,” he said. “They give CPR. We know that in 2020, over 10,000 medical aid calls were done by law enforcement officers in the county.”

Anderson said law enforcement officers already are receiving vaccines in 27 California counties including Orange, Santa Barbara, Napa and Ventura.

Fletcher said that while it is true some front line workers are receiving vaccine, it’s not because they are at risk of spreading it to others as argued by Anderson, but rather because it allowed them to become vaccinators themselves, increasing the county’s workforce at vaccination stations.

County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten weighed in and said other counties that are providing vaccines to law enforcement officers are smaller than San Diego. She said law enforcement was next in line to receive vaccines, and she recommended that the board not change its policy because seniors still are most likely to die from the disease, and law enforcement officers represented just 0.2 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19.

Employees in other fields also are eager to receive vaccines. Some elected officials, school administrators and supporters of education from throughout the county are scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon to argue for providing vaccinations to teachers immediately.

During a COVID-19 update Tuesday, Feb. 9, supervisors heard that there are not enough vaccines available to provide them to everyone who wants them.

Nick Macchione, director of the county health department, said the county’s massive and growing vaccination system was down to just 15,000 doses in the freezer as of Sunday, Feb. 7.

Though a more-recent figure was not available Tuesday evening, Feb. 9, the executive said that new shipments have simply not arrived at anywhere near requested amounts.

“Last week we received just over a quarter of the doses we requested from the state for our entire region,” Macchione said. “Many of our providers saw large reductions in the number of vaccines they were given, and many did not receive any at all.”

Local hospitals, community clinics, medical practices, pharmacies and other “state-enrolled providers” had about 111,000 doses on hand, and Macchione indicated that his department is monitoring providers’ ability to put doses in arms within the week as is the case in county-run vaccination stations large and small.

The local pandemic remained in a lower gear Tuesday, Feb. 9, with 789 new cases listed in the latest county tracking report. Hospitalizations remained flat, but there were 32 additional COVID-related deaths announced.

In other actions Tuesday, Feb. 9, supervisors approved a sick leave policy for county employees ill with COVID-19 and agreed to begin negotiations for county workers to receive hazard pay during the pandemic.

County workers had requested hazard pay last year, and Fletcher said the first step in addressing those requests will begin by negotiating on the amount with nine employee groups.

Anderson and Desmond voted against pursuing hazard pay for county employees. While saying they respected the employees’ work, they argued that the board should remain focused on vaccines and helping people in greater need.

“People who have lost everything should be the ones receiving prioritized funding at this time,” Desmond said. “Any additional funding should go to those who haven’t received a paycheck this year.”

Anderson also said he had a problem with giving hazard pay to employees, including many who make more than $100,000 a year, while the pay isn’t available to essential workers in his district, including families of four living on $25,000 a year.

Supervisors also agreed to declare the Tijuana River Valley a public health crisis because of sewage flow and waste that comes from Mexico.

The declaration does not bring the county any additional statutory power to address the issue, but does raise awareness of the problem, a staff member reported to the board.

A local health emergency would be a more serious declaration and allow the county to seek aid from other jurisdictions. Wooten said the county could not do that now because there has been no direct link detected between certain diseases and the river valley.

Supervisor Nora Vargas presented the proposal to the board and said pollution from the river valley had disproportionately affected communities of color in her district.

Lawson-Remer agreed and said the issue was a moral crisis caused by failed leadership.

Anderson suggested the county reach out to the Biden administration to work with Mexico on cleaning up the river valley.

“It impacts both sides of the border,” he said. “Whatever we can do to get Mexico to step up and meet us half way is vitally important.”

— Gary Warth and Paul Sisson are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune