Couples played tennis at Willard Park last week in Berkeley. That’s no longer an option. Photo: Pete Rosos

This week, the city of Berkeley is closing its basketball courts and tot lots and working to set up eight new trailers where homeless people who have been infected with COVID-19, or exposed to it, can be quarantined and get medical help without putting other campers in danger.

These are only the latest actions in the marathon that began in January for staff working to figure out what Berkeley needs to do to bolster its defenses against the spread of the novel coronavirus. As of Tuesday morning, Berkeley had reported 11 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases. Elsewhere in Alameda County, there have been two deaths and more than 120 cases, while the Bay Area as a whole has seen more than 1,000 cases and 21 deaths.

Starting Monday, the city began shutting down its outdoor sports facilities — such as volleyball, tennis and basketball courts — as well as its play areas for children. Recreation and senior centers closed earlier this month. Staff is now posting “closed” signs and covering basketball hoops with plastic bags, along with other efforts to get people to realize how important last week’s shelter-in-place orders are to public health.

The message? said Paul Buddenhagen, one of two deputy city managers for the city of Berkeley: “We need you guys to comply. We’re signaling, by closing stuff down, that this is serious.”

Under the recent shelter-in-place rules, everything not considered an essential business or activity in the Bay Area has been strictly limited or prohibited. Authorities have said people can hike and continue to use most local parks, but they must stay 6 feet away from anyone they don’t live with.

But each day brings new announcements about what is, or isn’t, allowed. State parks are technically still open, but their campgrounds are closed through mid-April and many of their parking areas are now off-limits. Sunday, Marin County closed all of its parks to limit the spread of COVID-19. Tuesday, Berkeley closed its dog parks and the East Bay Regional Park District said dog owners must keep their pets on leashes because people were not following the rules of social distancing. More restrictions are expected in the coming days.

Police will be issuing warnings — and may start writing tickets — to people and businesses that flout the rules

Buddenhagen told Berkeleyside on Tuesday that the city is now considering what to do about people and businesses that do not comply with the shelter-in-place rules. He said Berkeley plans to step up enforcement, and that police will be issuing warnings — and may start writing tickets — to people and businesses that flout the regulations.

Also new this week: The city is working to set up two areas where homeless people who have been infected with COVID-19 or exposed to it can be quarantined. To that end, the city bought eight trailers, which should be delivered this week, and plans to create a temporary shelter at 1281 University Ave. (across from Bonar Street). The city also plans to use a house it owns, at 1654 Fifth St. (at Virginia Street), for the same purpose and may set up “hard-sided tents or similar temporary structures” outside that residence as well.

“If somebody gets this virus at their encampment, we need places to help isolate them,” Buddenhagen said. The city also wants to find places where unsheltered people can go if they are at greater risk for contracting COVID-19 due to their age or existing medical conditions.

New temporary shelters aren’t the only option the city has explored for this. Staff has also been calling every hotel in Berkeley to see how many rooms would be available should the need arise. Staff has been negotiating with hotels to see how this might work and, at the same time, the city is researching the legal grounds it would need to commandeer hotels should that become necessary.

Over the weekend, Alameda County officials announced plans to lease two hotels in Oakland that could function as temporary shelters for people experiencing homelessness. Buddenhagen said he believes those resources may be available to people who are homeless in Berkeley, but said details are still getting worked out.

Berkeley city staff in the emergency operations center. Photo: City of Berkeley

Last week, at Berkeley’s final City Council meeting for the foreseeable future, Buddenhagen described to officials what staff has been doing since launching an “emergency operations center” (EOC) in January to deal with the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. The EOC structure gives the city manager broader authority to make decisions during an emergency and makes it easier for staff from different departments to collaborate.

Buddenhagen told council that 35-40 city staffers have been meeting from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays, and in a smaller group on weekends, to tackle all the aspects of its emergency response, from public health needs and emergency services to logistics and business support, among other “branches” of the team.

The night before last week’s regional shelter-in-place order went into effect, Buddenhagen told council, several key Berkeley leaders “were on the phone call until midnight” with health officers from across the Bay Area to figure out the details of how the new rules would work.

“There’s many, many hours by many committed staff people across the city,” he said, “working together hours every day to figure out how to keep this community safe.”

To date, much of this work has been “invisible,” staffers told council, because they simply haven’t had time to let officials or the public know about it. But they pledged to share more information about their efforts as soon as they could.

Initially, Buddenhagen told council, the EOC team met in “a bunker in the public safety building.” But, once the shelter-in-place order went into effect, staff split up into separate rooms due to social distancing requirements. They are now using tools like Slack, Skype and their cellphones to stay in touch and communicate about what actions they need to take.

In the EOC, staff has been coming up with plans for what to do when police and firefighters get exposed to COVID-19, and how to get more protective gear in stock for city workers. The city has also been figuring out how to increase its cleaning contracts to limit the possible spread of coronavirus in municipal buildings where staff is still working.

City staffers, he told council, “are really working hard and struggling with being on the front lines of seeing this stuff every day.” They are “going into places that are scary to them and dealing with the situation, and then managing their own family lives,” he said. This will continue to be a learning experience for everyone, he said.

“Everybody’s adjusting to how we figure out: How do we support people through this crisis — in ways that we’re learning how to do now that are different than we’ve done before or amplifying what we’ve done before,” said Buddenhagen.

Pete Christy keeping watch over his part of the encampment also known as the island of misfit toys. Photo: Pete Rosos

The public health crisis has definitely changed business as usual for many city staff, even those who aren’t part of the EOC. Some are now working remotely or planning to, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told council members last week. She estimated that figure to be around 60% but said that may not be an accurate tally because details were still being determined.

Buddenhagen said the city’s homeless outreach workers have not been going out to camps the way they usually would, in large part because they haven’t had appropriate protective gear. The city has been working on procuring that gear and is also training staff on how to stay safe as they move from camp to camp to ensure they aren’t spreading COVID-19 themselves. The city is setting up a combined medical outreach team with LifeLong Medical Care and has been partnering with grassroots organizations to get supplies like hand sanitizer and public health information distributed in encampments throughout the city.

Buddenhagen said Tuesday that the city does have some masks and gloves for workers, but is still trying to get more supplies like that too. Berkeley is working on setting up its own system to accept community donations and hopes to have that up and running next week. (Berkeleyside will share that information when it is available.)

This week, staffers in the EOC — including an epidemiologist — have been analyzing scenarios that show what the progression of COVID-19 might look like in Berkeley: how many people might get it, how many could end up in the hospital and how many might die. Staff is also looking at what steps the city can take to change those outcomes, he told Berkeleyside on Tuesday.

“I’ve never been more proud to be a public servant.”
—Paul Buddenhagen

Buddenhagen said that managing the response has by no means been easy. These days, he said, he takes about two hours to have dinner with his family and check in on them each day. He sleeps for six or seven hours a night. The rest of the time, he said, he’s either working in the EOC or thinking about what the city needs to do.

Other staffers are also working late nights, staying up texting about issues that come up and trying to stay ahead of any challenges that might arise.

“I’ve never been more proud to be a public servant: being fully engaged in the biggest health care problem we’ve ever seen with so many devoted and incredibly hardworking and deeply skilled and competent city staff who have been pulled out of their normal jobs with the singular purpose of protecting the city,” he said. “It’s really hard and it’s really intense and it’s emotional — but it’s an honor to be a part of it.”

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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 of the Year...