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Bay Area Headlines: Wednesday, 6/1/20, PM


California Shuts Down Activities / Higher Bridge Tolls Okayed By Court / Santa Clara Officials Set Plans For School Reopenings / State Senators Question Prison Officials On Outbreak

California Shuts Down Activities

Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered bars and indoor operations of restaurants to close for the next three weeks in most parts of the state. His order comes amid a troubling increase of California coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, and it applies to 19 counties covering 72% of the state's population. That includes Contra Costa, Solano, and Santa Clara Counties. The order also applies to the indoor operations of movie theaters, wineries, tasting rooms, family entertainment centers, zoos, and museums. Newsom did not close beaches. But he ordered parking lots closed at beaches in Southern California and in the San Francisco Bay Area to limit overcrowding.

Higher Bridge Tolls Okayed By Court 

A state appeals court sided with the Bay Area Toll authority, Monday, to increase Bay Area bridge tolls by $3 over 6 years. Tolls at every Bay Area bridge except the Golden Gate rose by a dollar at the beginning of 2019. They’ll increase by another dollar in 2022, and a dollar more in 2025.

The fees, approved by voters in 2018, are set to fund more than 30 projects, including the next phase of BART’s extension through San Jose. Parts of that extension have already opened.

But the money has been on hold until now. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued the Bay Area toll authority soon after the ballot measure passed with 55% of the vote. The group argued that toll increases function as a tax, and therefore would need the support of two thirds of voters to pass.

A San Francisco trial court sided with toll authorities last year. On Monday, The First District Court of Appeals also rejected challenges to the measure. Representatives from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association say they will most likely file a petition with the state supreme court to review the case.

Santa Clara Officials Set Plans For School Reopenings

Santa Clara County officials, yesterday, issued some requirements and recommendations for reopening schools. The county did not commit to a firm date for opening K-12 school campuses. But in a guidance document, the public health department said that schools should prioritize in-person instruction along with strict safety protocols. 

That generally means that everyone on a campus will have to wear face masks most of the time. They also must maintain a six feet distance from each other as much as possible. The County said that neither recommendation applies to elementary school students — because they need close contact for their emotional and academic development.

At a press conference in San Jose, Santa Clara County’s schools superintendent Mary Ann Dewan said they’ll take many measures to protect people:

“The first thing is that there will be more social distancing and physical distancing as children enter schools at the elementary level. Some classrooms will need to remove furniture, desks will be in rows — facing the front so that they're not facing each other.”

Additionally, extracurricular activities won’t be allowed unless they can accommodate social distancing requirements. 

The county recommends schools have a backup plan for remote learning in case campuses have to be shut down again. 

Similar protocols have been developed in other counties across the Bay Area, including San Mateo. The Oakland and San Francisco Unified School Districts are drafting proposals to consider both entirely or remote teaching models, with announcements expected later this month.

State Senators Question Prison Officials On Outbreak

California lawmakers harshly criticized state corrections officials, Wednesday, saying they botched their handling of the coronavirus pandemic by inadvertently transferring infected inmates to a virus-free prison, triggering the state’s worst prison outbreak.

A third of the 3,500 inmates at San Quentin State Prison have tested positive since officials transferred 121 inmates from the heavily impacted California Institution for Men in Chino on May 30 without properly testing them for infections.

State Senator Mike McGuire represents the San Quentin area. He said:

“I don’t say this lightly, but this is a failure of leadership. This crisis is completely avoidable.”

Assemblyman Marc Levine, who also represents the region, said lawmakers and inmate advocates had been warning everyone from Governor Gavin Newsom on down since the start of the pandemic that prisons were uniquely vulnerable.

He called the transfer of infected inmates to San Quentin:

“The worst prison health screw-up in state history. We cannot sweep it under the rug. There must be accountability. Never has too little, too late been more true, or cruel.”

Corrections Secretary Ralph Diaz countered that prison officials "have worked tirelessly” to protect inmates statewide. He said: 

"The thought that we don’t care or I don’t care personally, that’s the farthest from the truth.”

On Tuesday, the department created a command center at San Quentin that includes medical, security, emergency management, and infectious disease experts from multiple state agencies.

San Quentin has erected six tents to treat infected patients and create room for more physical distancing elsewhere in the prison.

Officials recently announced a new plan to free certain inmates statewide who are within six months of their release date and said those early releases to parole or probation supervision were being expedited at San Quentin. The state also plans to more swiftly release eligible inmates with high-risk medical conditions.

The San Quentin outbreak is in danger of helping overwhelm San Francisco Bay Area hospitals already strained by coronavirus cases, state and local health officials, and advocates.

McGuire said 24 out of 25 intensive care beds in San Mateo County are full, with eight of those patients from San Quentin.

Clark Kelso, a federal court-appointed receiver who controls medical care in the prison system, said 42 of San Quentin's inmates have been sent to outside hospitals.

He said the problem at San Quentin stemmed from good intentions when officials decided to move medically vulnerable inmates from the Southern California prison, which had been the hardest hit and has accounted for 16 of the prison system's 22 deaths.

Kelso said those transferred inmates had tested negative for infections, but some of the tests were weeks old.

Twenty-five of the inmates transferred to San Quentin subsequently tested positive for coronavirus, Kelso said, and infections quickly spread through open cell houses with ventilated doors. There were delays in getting test results. And many inmates refused testing, he said, including as many as 300 inmates in one cell house. People incarcerated at San Quentin have said they were concerned about contagion because correctional officers were not all following safe practices.

Still, Kelso said, about 300 of the more than 1,100 infected inmates are expected to be deemed recovered this weekend.

Governor Newsom has repeatedly defended his administration's handling of the pandemic in prisons, noting that he has ordered about 3,500 early releases, plans about 3,500 more, and halted transfers from local jails to create more space in prisons for social isolation.