Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots. Image: CDC

Concerns in Berkeley about the spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak that began in China in December 2019 have shut down most classes at Cal and led to the cancellation of a town hall event about the disease planned for later this month.

Now, three council members say they will call in to Tuesday night’s City Council meeting out of an abundance of caution related to possible health impacts. The city has at least one confirmed case of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, and two other confirmed cases have been reported in Alameda County.

Councilman Ben Bartlett said he decided to phone in to the meeting because he cares for several elderly people with underlying medical conditions and did not want to risk infecting them.

Council members Susan Wengraf and Sophie Hahn said they were supposed to be in San Diego at a fire safety meeting this week, so they had gotten permission to attend the council meeting by teleconference. Wengraf then decided to cancel that trip to limit her exposure to the disease, she told Berkeleyside on Monday. She and Hahn then decided to call in to Tuesday’s meeting as they had already gotten approval to attend by phone.

Wengraf said she’s in the high-risk group for coronavirus exposure that includes anyone over 60 years old. Health officials have advised people to limit their exposure to large groups, avoid touching their faces, wash their hands regularly and stay home if they are sick.

“I just thought, why not take the precaution and let the technology work for me,” she said. “If technology can help me protect myself, I’m going to use it.”

Hahn said officials had to decide last week, as the coronavirus situation intensified, about how they would attend this week’s meeting, which takes place at 1231 Addison St. She said she had decided to call in because of potential health reasons and would keep a close eye on recommendations from health experts.

Bartlett originally had planned to hold a “community health town hall” event at the South Berkeley Senior Center later in the month where people could hear from city and county public health experts and also from a scientist who is working on a possible cure for the disease. But he said he changed his mind after the Centers for Disease Control advised older people to stay home and avoid groups. Nearly 20% of Berkeley’s population is 60 or older, according to the most recent information available from the U.S. Census.

“That would be more than half of the room,” he realized. “Why risk it?”

Bartlett is now looking into whether it might be possible to offer the event as a webinar. He said he’d also like to find a way for council meetings to be “more interactive” so that people could participate or comment without actually being there in person.

The disease has already changed the way the city is trying to communicate with the public. Last week, for the first time, Berkeley held a “Twitter town hall” with the head of the city’s public health division to answer questions online in real time.

Read more on Berkeleyside about coronavirus

Wengraf said she has asked the city manager whether all non-quasi-judicial meetings — such the city’s many committee or commission meetings — might be canceled in the short term. She said that, while she is still having meetings with constituents, attending smaller city events and handling municipal business, she has decided not to attend meetings with more than 50 people, in line with public health advice.

“This is a really interesting test of our resilience,” she said. “We keep talking about these hypothetical situations. Here we are it’s not hypothetical anymore.”

Wengraf said she is considering what to do about a large Holocaust remembrance event planned in April. It draws many older people who come from senior housing facilities, which have been taking extra precautions in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Depending on what happens in the next few weeks, Wengraf said, organizers may decide to cancel the event.

Hahn is planning to hold a community meeting this week about the city’s Solano Avenue Revitalization Plan and said, as of Monday, it’s still on. But she referenced health concerns in a meeting notice she sent to constituents by email.

“We will provide hand sanitizer and wet-wipes for your use,” she wrote. “Thank you for staying home if you are not feeling 100%, if someone in your household is or has recently been sick, or if you have traveled in the past month in a location with concentrations of the flu.”

She said Monday that she’ll continue to follow the advice of health experts to determine whether to change the plan. (Update, Wednesday, March 11: This meeting has been canceled in line with the city’s directive to avoid big events.)

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said city staff have been meeting daily to discuss the public health impacts and decide how best to handle them in Berkeley. He noted that, while other counties in the Bay Area have had COVID-19 cases linked to “community spread” — where those who get sick are not aware of any direct contact with someone with the disease — Berkeley has not.

“We want to be responding appropriately to the environment here but, at the same time, we’re moving forward with the awareness of what’s going on around us and we’ll be responding to that as well,” he said. “Every jurisdiction is anticipating more cases.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...