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California

Government complacency is ‘a giant sin’: Imperial Beach was ready to act

sun and sea.jpg
Dorothy Agustin, Sun and Sea Manor executive director, holds a “thank you” sign after the assited living facility received medical supplies from San Diego County. Behind her are the facility’s staff and, at left, owner Anne Owens-Stone.
(Sun and Sea Manor)

The Sun and Sea Manor, an assisted living facility for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, hit a roadblock when ordering medical equipment earlier this month.

Their vendor was out of supplies. The COVID-19 pandemic had created a surge in demand, so the assisted living facility in the San Diego County city of Imperial Beach was essentially told to take a number and hope for the best.

“They’re getting so many orders that they’ve set up a lottery system right now with everything, including toilet paper,” said Dorothy Agustin, the home’s executive director.

Then, Sun and Sea got an unexpected call from Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina. Agustin described it as a “wellness check” from the city’s top elected official.

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She told him about their lack of gloves, masks and medical gowns. He told her that IB had their back.

Within a week, the supplies came.

“We’ve been doing the happy dance over here,” said Anne Owens-Stone, Sun and Sea Manor’s owner. “We also received hand sanitizer, which nobody can get their hands on these days.”

That wasn’t an isolated act of kindness. Three weeks ago, Imperial Beach set up a special task force to proactively deal with coronavirus-related issues facing the city’s residents.

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The task force is broken down into five subcommittees that each address particular issues: public health; business; high-risk populations; preparation and recovery; and public safety.

Each committee includes one member of the City Council and local residents who are experts in their respected field. For example, the public health subcommittee includes Mayor Dedina and three doctors who live in Imperial Beach. All of the work is done on a volunteer basis.

Those experts tap into their networks to provide Imperial Beach residents with the best available resources.

Dedina got the idea to form a task force from the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. It’s a program that connects mayors from across the country to experts via weekly conference calls.

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Those experts include former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as former heads of the CDC and crisis management experts at Harvard University. They stressed the importance of having a unified and proactive response, Dedina said.

“It was the first thing they suggested,” he said.

Apart from getting Sun and Sea Manor medical equipment, the task force has helped connect local businesses with federal loan programs, gotten 40 masks to workers at the local Grocery Outlet store, removed gang-related graffiti that popped up after the stay-in-shelter orders, and educated tenants about eviction protections available to them.

Imperial Beach was the first city in San Diego County to pass an eviction moratorium. Under the city’s moratorium, tenants who provide written notice to their landlord that they are unable to pay rent because of the pandemic and show documented proof to back up their claim cannot be evicted during the state of emergency.

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In a way, Imperial Beach was ready for a crisis because the city had already been facing one for years — cross-border sewage spills that routinely shut down the city’s beaches.

“I think it gave us the resources to understand why complacency is a giant sin for government,” Dedina said. “That’s why we were so proactive on this issues. Because we can’t afford to have it devastate our community.”

Dr. Ramon Hernandez, who is a member of the public health subcommittee, is also the sector chief of community health at UC San Diego School of Medicine’s pediatricts department. He has been hosting weekly video blogs on Facebook to keep the community updated on the latest developments.

Hernandez is the one who connected Sun and Sea Manor with the county health department for supplies.

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Hernandez says the task force has had practical benefits in helping combat the pandemic but also has worked to keep people connected even while isolated at home — an important factor right now for overall well-being. Being able to solve some issues through the task force is a mental health boost, he said.

“To be honest, the community piece is what inspires me,” he said. “I see our community do all of this work and it’s really beautiful. It shows that in the midst of a crisis we are coming together and it shows the strength of our city.”

It’s been particularly helpful in giving people a sense of agency, he said, that they have some sort of control over this situation.

At Sun and Sea Manor, staff have been controlling what they can control, showing a little creativity while doing some troubleshooting.

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With current restrictions, residents’ family and friends haven’t been able to visit. So staff members have started shooting short videos that residents can send to their children, grandkids and great-grandchildren.

“To feel so embraced by the community has just been so uplifting,” Owens-Stone said.

Solis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune


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