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As the Pandemic Drags on, Cal Lawmakers Push Bills to Keep Public Meetings Virtual

Executive Order No. N-29-20 relaxed provisions in California’s Bagley-Keene and Ralph Brown acts, allowing state, county and city government institutions to take their public meetings online. 

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Microphone Angle From Podium Stock Photo; Photo courtesy of California Black Media

The threat of the COVID-19 Delta variant has become more apparent. And what was once the looming possibility of  reinstating pandemic public safety guidelines is becoming  reality.  As this is happening, California lawmakers are pushing a number of bills to expand the use of various telecommunication options for public meetings.

On July 2, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the extension of Executive Order No. N-29-20, through September 30. The goal of the order, which he issued last year, was to make sure Californians continued to have uninterrupted access to government meetings as the global COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the state’s day-to-day operations. It was set to expire June 15.

Executive Order No. N-29-20 relaxed provisions in California’s Bagley-Keene and Ralph Brown acts, allowing state, county and city government institutions to take their public meetings online.

“A local legislative body or state body is authorized to hold public meetings via teleconferencing and to make public meetings accessible telephonically or otherwise electronically to all members of the public seeking to observe and to address the local legislative body or state body,” Newsom’s order read.

California’s Brown Act of 1953 ensures in-person public participation in county and local government meetings. The Bagley-Keene Act guarantees the same for meetings held by state boards, state commissions, and state agencies.

Citing inadequate staff or equipment, some California governments — Lemon Grove, San Diego County and the Carlsbad City Council – have already reduced or removed the option to attend public meetings over Zoom or by phone after returning to in-person meetings earlier this summer.

But activists insist the onus is on government to make it easier for people to participate in the policy discussions that impact their lives.

Last week, the San Diego Democratic Party endorsed a policy initiative called “Boost Democracy” that is the brainchild of the Rev. Shane Harris, a local activist and founder of the People’s Alliance for Justice.

It proposes that four of the county’s largest agencies – the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), San Diego County Board of Supervisors, San Diego County Office of Education, and San Diego City Council – adopt a text message notification system to public meetings that alerts the public when their agenda item is up for discussion.

“The party backs my proposal because they know that it’s right and it will make lives easier for everyday people,” Harris said. So far, only SDUSD has endorsed the Harris’s idea.

The bills, the California lawmakers are moving through the Legislature, are Assembly Bills 703, 361 and 339.

Assembly Bill (AB) 703, introduced by Assemblymember Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) would do away with many of the Brown Act restrictions on teleconferencing from various locations, allowing for broader virtual access.

“This bill would remove the notice requirements particular to teleconferencing and would revise the requirements of the act to allow for teleconferencing subject to existing provisions regarding the posting of notice of an agenda, provided that the public is allowed to observe the meeting and address the legislative body directly both in person and remotely via a call-in option or internet-based service option, and that a quorum of members participate in person from a singular physical location clearly identified on the agenda that is open to the public and situated within the jurisdiction,” the text of the bill reads.

AB 703 would remove the current Brown Act requirements that each virtual or telephone location be identified and made public.

The bill also includes a requirement to streamline the process of reviewing and resolving Americans with Disabilities Act requests for virtual meetings.

AB 703 has now been referred to the Assembly Committee on Local Government and is awaiting further action.

AB 361, introduced by Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) would allow local agencies to hold remote meetings during a declared state of emergency.

This bill, until January 1, 2024, would authorize a local agency to use teleconferencing without complying with the teleconferencing requirements imposed by the Ralph M. Brown Act when a legislative body of a local agency holds a meeting during a declared state of emergency,” the bill’s text reads.

AB 361 passed in the Assembly Committee on Local Government and is currently being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Finally, AB 339 — introduced by assemblymembers Rivas, Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) and Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) — would require county supervisors and city councils to allow the public to have access to meetings through a two-way phone option or a two-way internet interfacing option along with video streaming and in-person comments or questions.

“This bill would, until Dec. 31, 2023, require all open and public meetings of a city council or a county board of supervisors that governs a jurisdiction containing at least 250,000 people to include an opportunity for members of the public to attend via a two-way telephonic option or a two-way internet-based service option, as specified, and would require a city council or county board of supervisors that has, as of June 15, 2021, provided video streaming, as defined, of at least one of its meetings to continue to provide that video streaming,” the bill’s text reads.

AB 339 would also require public agencies to provide real time translators for their virtual meetings.

AB 339 has been referred to the Committee on Appropriations in the Assembly.

Supporters of virtual meetings say, for parents, disabled citizens, people without access to reliable transportation, seniors and other Californians who have trouble attending public meetings, teleconferencing has provided an avenue for Californians to be more involved in the legislative process than had been possible before.

“If there is one silver lining from the pandemic, it’s that public access to local government meetings expanded beyond physical attendance, to telephonic and even video attendance,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit organization that focuses on supporting freedom of speech and accountability in government.  “This made local democracy accessible for many who would otherwise not be able to attend–and public agencies should maintain, not constrict, this access as California returns, however slowly, to normal.”

These bills, if passed, could set the ground for extending public access far beyond COVID-19.

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Activism

The Updated Booster is Here, Just in Time for the Holiday Season

The facts speak for themselves: vaccines and boosters have undeniable benefits. These tools are what is best for your children as we continue to fight against COVID-19. To prevent severe outcomes, including long COVID, I strongly recommend all parents consider getting their children vaccinated and boosted. If you remain uncertain, don’t hesitate to speak with your child’s doctor and get the facts from someone you trust.

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Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces also helps slow the spread of many different respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19.
Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces also helps slow the spread of many different respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19. (Photo: Dr. Jerry Abraham, MD, CMQ, MPH)

By Dr. Jerry Abraham, MD, CMQ, MPH

Thanksgiving is next week, and Christmas is around the corner. The holiday season has officially arrived. Now that the updated booster authorized for individuals as young as 5, we’re even closer to ensuring the whole family is protected during fall and winter when the spread of respiratory viruses is at its peak.

The booster has been updated to strengthen protection against the original coronavirus strain while also targeting the dominant Omicron subvariants that have recently spread widely and continue to infect many. We all need to get boosted, and there are groups we need to ensure are protected – children 5 years and older, older adults and those most at risk for serious infection.

As for our older adults, your risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 goes up as you age, and COVID-19 booster doses can help lower the risk of severe illness, long-term effects, hospitalization and death. This means less strain on our hospitals, less risk to our most vulnerable populations and less worry for you and your loved ones this holiday season.

recent study found that overall life expectancy for Californians decreased by three years and noted higher-than-average decreases in life expectancy for Hispanic and Black Californians due to their exposure to higher COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates. That’s why older adults are encouraged to prioritize vaccination to stay safer from severe outcomes and achieve your highest level of health and well-being.

And for parents, I know many of you are feeling fear and uncertainty around getting your children vaccinated and boosted because you want to be sure you make the best choice for your children’s health and futures. Misinformation that is largely spread online and on social media amplifies apprehension and confusion about vaccines.

But the facts speak for themselves: vaccines and boosters have undeniable benefits. These tools are what is best for your children as we continue to fight against COVID-19. To prevent severe outcomes, including long COVID, I strongly recommend all parents consider getting their children vaccinated and boosted. If you remain uncertain, don’t hesitate to speak with your child’s doctor and get the facts from someone you trust.

Everyone 5 and older is eligible to get the updated booster at least two months following their last dose, whether that was their primary series or following a booster dose. Getting vaccinated and boosted lowers the risk of contracting, spreading, and getting severely ill from COVID-19.

The updated boosters will help children’s and older adults’ immune systems fight off a wider variety of variants that we most likely will see during the flu season.

The booster is similar to flu vaccines, where the components of the flu vaccine are updated to help protect against the specific flu viruses circulating that year. Similarly, COVID-19 boosters are updated to protect us against the newest variants of COVID-19.

If you are under-vaccinated or unvaccinated, the risk of complications and death increases. Get vaccinated and boosted to protect older loved ones, young children, immunocompromised friends, family and neighbors.

Wearing a mask in public indoor spaces also helps slow the spread of many different respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19.

Everyday preventative actions like staying home when you feel sick, frequent handwashing, covering your cough, avoiding close contact with sick people, wearing a mask in public indoor spaces and getting vaccinated or boosted can help protect you and your family, especially as we head into the colder months. To schedule an appointment for a vaccination or a booster, visit MyTurn.ca.gov.

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Advice

What Parents Should Know About RSV, A Respiratory Virus

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can include symptoms similar to a common cold. However, the virus can develop into something more serious. RSV can infect people of all ages but is most severe for older adults and young children.

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Dr. Frederick Kuo
Dr. Frederick Kuo

By Frederick Kuo

As RSV cases continue to spike across parts of the U.S. — with some areas nearing seasonal peak levels — those typical “bugs” your child brings home may have you feeling on edge. With so much swirling around these days, it can be difficult to know what’s behind a constant cough, especially if your child is very young.

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, can include symptoms similar to a common cold. However, the virus can develop into something more serious. RSV can infect people of all ages but is most severe for older adults and young children.

Usually almost every child under the age of 2 has been exposed to RSV, but due to all the pandemic response over the last few years, kids have not been exposed as much to RSV. That is one of the reasons why we are seeing such a spike this year, as well as RSV in children older than 2.

Symptoms

RSV symptoms may vary and typically begin four to six days after infection. The most common symptoms might include:

  • Runny nose
  • Low appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

For young infants with RSV, they might be irritable, sluggish or find it harder to breathe.

Your pediatrician will be able to figure out whether it’s a common cold, COVID-19 or RSV, if you have concerns about symptoms your child is showing. They might perform tests, like chest X-rays, to see if pneumonia has developed.

When should you call a doctor?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes an increase in RSV-associated emergency room visits. However, most cases will go away on their own in a week or two. Symptoms are typically at their worst on days three to five of infection. Only 3% of children with RSV will require a hospital stay.

If symptoms become severe, contact your pediatrician right away. This may include:

  • Symptoms of bronchiolitis
  • Symptoms of dehydration (only one wet diaper in 8 hours or more)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gray or blue lips, tongue or skin
  • A significant decrease in activity or alertness

Even though RSV is common, and it might seem difficult to figure out how severe it will become, there are some risk factors parents should be aware of.

  • Children who are born premature or are 6 months old or younger are most at-risk for RSV complications
  • Children with chronic heart or lung disease, or a weaker immune system, can also be susceptible to RSV

Treatment

There’s currently no vaccine to prevent RSV and no specific treatment for the infection. As stated, most cases will resolve on their own. However, there are a few things you can do to help relieve the symptoms:

  • Manage pain and fever with over-the-counter medications (consult your pediatrician for guidance and never give aspirin to children)
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Nasal salineto help with breathing
  • Cool-mist humidifier to help break up mucus

Talk to your health care provider before you give any over-the-counter cold medicine to your child.

How it spreads

RSV is typically spread through coughs and sneezes, but can spread when someone touches a surface that has the virus on it and then touches their face, before washing their hands.

The following tips may help reduce your family’s risk:

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm, not your hands
  • Avoid close contact with others, especially those who are sick
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home
  • If you’re sick, stay home

The best way to avoid transmission of RSV is what we have been doing very well over the last few years: Scrupulous hand hygiene with washing our hands frequently with soap and water, and cleaning the surfaces small hands get to, like doorknobs and handles. Also, wear a mask if you have any respiratory symptoms.

With the knowledge of what RSV may look like — and how it is different from other viruses — you’ll be able to take steps to keep your child as healthy as possible all year round.

For more information, visit the CDC website.

Dr. Frederick Kuo, MD, MBA, is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare, Northern California.

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Activism

State, Local Officials Take Actions to Tackle Homelessness Crisis 

“California’s housing affordability crisis has been more than a half century in the making and the state is tackling this foundational challenge with an innovative ‘all of the above’ approach,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “We’ve made unprecedented investments and progress to create more housing in California over the past four years, including using state-owned land to build homes – one of my first actions in 2019.

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Caption: State and local officials are using a multi-pronged approach to rein in the crisis of homelessness. iStock photo.
Caption: State and local officials are using a multi-pronged approach to rein in the crisis of homelessness. iStock photo.

By Aldon Thomas Stiles | California Black Media

As the California’s growing homelessness crisis continues to rise, state and local officials are serious about tackling it head on.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation related to solving this issue.

Over $15.3 billion has been budgeted in housing programs aimed at curtailing California’s homeless.

“State and federal resources have certainly made a difference in our communities,” said Bakersfield Mayor Karen K. Goh. “You know, going back to 2020 and 2021 with the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act and then followed by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the dollars are making their way to our citizens.”

Goh also pointed to Project Homekey as a program that has helped alleviate homelessness.

“Project Homekey resources are being used to transform underutilized motels and hotels into safe shelter in our communities,” said Goh.

The COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in the rise of homelessness, from 150,000 in 2019 to 161,000 in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The African American population in California has suffered disproportionately from this crisis.

The California Budget and Policy Center reports that Black people are roughly 25% of the state’s homeless although they make up about 5.5% of California’s population.

Some of the funding the state provided went to the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court — or CARE Court, a program that diverts homeless people with severe mental health problems away from the criminal justice system and into mandatory treatment.

Signed into law on September 14, the CARE Court Act, Senate Bill 1338 which was introduced by Sen. Thomas Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) focuses on untreated individuals suffering from psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Bills that Newsom signed on affordable housing include Senate Bill 561 by State Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), Assembly Bill (AB) 2233 by Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), and AB 2592 by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento).

“This historical package will go a long way towards increasing affordable production in California,” Quirk-Silva tweeted.

Together, these bills require the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and the California Department of General Services (DGS) to codify and expand the Excess Land for Affordable Housing program, a state initiative born from the governor’s first executive order.

“California’s housing affordability crisis has been more than a half century in the making and the state is tackling this foundational challenge with an innovative ‘all of the above’ approach,” Newsom said. “We’ve made unprecedented investments and progress to create more housing in California over the past four years, including using state-owned land to build homes – one of my first actions in 2019.

“I’m thankful to Senator Dodd, Assemblymember Quirk-Silva, and Assemblymember McCarty for their efforts in helping us fast-track our progress and bring more affordable housing statewide.”

Goh spoke about funding transparency.

“We’re seeing new innovation in our cities with these resources going to fund new city departments that help ensure that the city is accountable with the dollars they receive for addressing homelessness, and to better enable the city to show the public how they’re using these resources and the difference that they are making,” said Goh.

Mayor Todd Gloria of San Diego spoke about work that is being done on the local level to fight homelessness. “Our housing commission has put out over $200 million of assistance, helping roughly about 80,000 families at this point avoid homelessness, many of them seniors.” he said.

Gloria said that due to the federal government raising and lowering interest rates fighting this crisis sometimes “feels like you’re swimming upstream.”

He claimed that tackling minimum wage or advocating in the state capitol or Wash., D.C., are ways that local governments can have control over solving homelessness.

“You know, these are never satisfying answers because, yes, there are a bunch of things at work. But we get up every day and come here to try and make a difference on those matters,” said Gloria.

On October 3, Newsom signed Quirk-Silva’s AB 408 which requires local educational agencies to have a liaison for homeless youths so that the agencies can learn how to best support them.

Newsom recently announced that he will convene local leaders in mid-November to review the state’s collective approach to homelessness and identify new strategies.

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