Jacob Simas here, managing editor of Berkeleyside’s Oakland newsroom. It’s been nine weeks of sheltering in place, and my mind is on family. Specifically, the ones I can’t hug: my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, nieces and nephews, and cousins. Then there’s my wife’s side of the family, equally large. We’re a big clan, we’re tight, and we’re all in and around Oakland. Their absence has left a void.
That’s why for Mother’s Day last weekend, my wife and I prepared a cooler of food, piled our two kids into the car, and made some trips. The first was to visit “Tita” and “Fita,” my mother-in-law and 99-year-old grandmother-in-law in Pittsburg. Fita stayed inside, behind a closed screen door, while the rest of us spoke and munched on fruit drenched in lime juice and chile on the back patio. (Separate plates, no sharing, social distancing, anti-bacterial wipes at hand.) Next up, a visit with my sister’s family and our parents at their place in Rockridge, sitting on folding chairs in the driveway, same rules.
Both visits were wonderful. Therapeutic, even. And we felt like we were being safe. But I would be lying if I said the thought of those visits hasn’t been bothering me all week. Were we really being thoughtful, or irresponsible?
I wanted an expert opinion, so I reached out to Dr. Gerard Jenkins, Chief Medical Officer at Native American Health Center. The organization provides medical, dental, and behavioral health services to a broad swath of Oaklanders at its Fruitvale clinic. I trusted Dr. Jenkins to give me an honest answer, and he did.
“I hate to tell someone they’re right or wrong,” he said. “With COVID-19, there are a lot of grey areas. And I totally understand wanting to see and connect with family. But as a medical professional, there is still a grave concern. If you were to cough or sneeze, or if your kids were to become exposed, there’s a risk.”
I was grateful for the doctor’s candor. Alameda County officials have stated that a “phase 2” relaxation of shelter-in-place guidelines could arrive as early as this week. But COVID-19 cases tracked by the county don’t appear to be slowing. Last week, Alameda was one of ten California counties with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases.
As much as I wish I could let my guard down around family, now is not the time.
“Not being able to give someone a kiss or a hug, or just have a conversation with someone, it’s difficult. Even having to still wear masks — it’s uncomfortable, unnatural,” said Dr. Jenkins. “But if you are willing to bend the rules, then you have to also be okay accepting the risks.”
Going forward, I can’t promise that I won’t continue to find creative ways to visit with my loved ones in person, but I will definitely heed Dr. Jenkin’s advice and stay vigilant. For now, for us, safely social distancing with family while everyone enjoys a “bring your own” meal seems like a happy medium.
How are you staying in touch with family lately? I’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, we’ll help keep you informed of what’s happening in the city, starting with this week’s news roundup.
See you on the other side of the pandemic,
Jacob Simas, Managing Editor
Renewed push to bridge OUSD’s digital divide: Weeks after educators and supporters issued a letter to Oakland Unified School District demanding the city and school district provide free internet for students and families, district leaders announced a $12.5 million fundraising campaign for students’ at-home technology needs.
The district’s previous remedies, including promoting offers from cable companies to set up home internet hotspots, have had mixed results. Our education equity reporter Ashley McBride reports.
Will the kids ever go back to school? State Superintendent Tony Thurmond shared an update on when and how local school districts should reopen. Each district will decide for itself when to begin classes in the fall, and the state will offer some advice. OUSD’s school year is scheduled to start August 10, and any change would need to be negotiated with the Oakland Education Association, the teacher’s union.
Budget update: The governor’s office released a revised 2020-2021 budget with $12 billion less for K-12 education than was in January’s proposed budget. OUSD hasn’t released its budget for next year, but is preparing for cuts of up to $45 million, mainly due to state cuts.
Arts and community
Good Good Eatz: The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Oakland Chinatown hard, shuttering businesses and driving away crucial foot traffic. A new project, Good Good Eatz, is helping Chinatown small businesses not only weather the storm, but pivot their operations and hopefully thrive in the long run. Contributor Cheryl Angelina Koehler has a long story about the project with beautiful photos in our food section, Nosh, and you really must check it out. (Photo: Pete Rosos)
Paint The Town: Over the next several weeks, the Community Rejuvenation Project is painting an ambitious mural on the west-facing wall of the Greenlining Institute’s downtown Oakland headquarters. The artists will paint from a “swing stage” dangling from the six-story building’s rooftop. Anyone interested in viewing the action can stop by the site from roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on most days. Learn more at CRP’s website.
City Hall and policing
Police Commission reforms stalled: For the second week in a row, Mayor Schaaf fired off an email warning that a section of a proposed ballot measure, aimed at expanding the Police Commission’s power to review OPD policy, would “divert limited public safety resources, and prevent rapid response to public safety emergencies.”
Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Dan Kalb, the measure’s authors, told us they don’t think the mayor’s criticism is accurate. Rashidah Grinage, a member of the coalition that helped create the Police Commission, went further in an email statement of her own, calling the mayor’s statement “a lie.”
“Any additional Commission powers proposed would be hedged in with qualifications and subject to City Council approval,” Grinage wrote. “Nothing in any of the proposals could be construed by any fair-minded person as compromising public safety in any way.”
Regardless, the issue has stalled a potential November ballot measure for now. Last Tuesday, the Council voted to table the item. (Photo: Pete Rosos)
OPD buries a report about how it discriminates against Black officers: Two years ago, a federal judge ordered the Oakland Police Department to study whether an OPD officer’s race or ethnicity impacts how they get disciplined for misconduct. A final report was delivered to the city in March.
We submitted multiple requests to see the report in January and April, but OPD refused to make it public. We’ve also asked for a copy of the report from the Police Commission and City Administrator, but both departments have declined. No one in the city explained why they weren’t releasing it. This week, the police department finally posted it to their website — at the end of the day on Friday.
The report shows that Black officers are 37% more likely to have misconduct allegations against them sustained, an indication of racial bias in the police department’s discipline system. The report also found that Black police trainees are released from OPD’s academy at higher rates than other racial groups. We’ve only had a chance to skim this document so far, but we will report on its details next week.
City Council passes sick leave policy: On Tuesday, the council approved a sick leave law introduced by Councilmember Sheng Thao that builds on recently approved federal sick leave benefits. It will primarily benefit Oakland workers employed by large companies like grocery store chains, chain restaurants, and delivery workers. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, as are nonprofits and health care businesses. Councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas, Dan Kalb, and Loren Taylor co-sponsored the law.
Health and environment
A safety net for day laborers: Undocumented immigrants were excluded from federal COVID-19 relief efforts. Now, a state relief fund promised by Governor Gavin Newsom is finally taking applications.
In the meantime, several Oakland organizations stepped in to fill the gap. Contributor Azucena Rasilla reports in English and in Spanish about Street Level Health Project, which has been distributing food and information to undocumented people and low-wage immigrants in the Fruitvale district since the pandemic began.
How far has COVID-19 spread in Santa Rita Jail? The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office claims to be ahead of the curve in keeping Santa Rita Jail clean and secure against the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak. But COVID-19 is in the jail, and detainees say the sheriff isn’t doing enough to protect them. We spoke with multiple detainees over the past month who shared conditions and concerns. So far, only 195 detainees have been tested, about 6% of the total number of people who have passed through the jail since the start of the outbreak. Fifty-three of those tested, or about one-third, have the virus.
$318 million increase for sheriff’s budget: The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to up the sheriff’s budget by $106 million each year for the next three years. The money will be used to increase staffing in the jail, including deputies and mental health workers. The decision was based on reports created in response to a lawsuit against the sheriff alleging that the jail is severely understaffed, that mentally ill prisoners are mistreated, and that suicides and injuries are up because of these conditions.
County supervisors haven’t voted to increase the budget for the Alameda Public Health Department, the frontline agency responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The increase to the sheriff’s budget is almost as large as the Public Health Department’s total annual budget of $112 million.
No parking at Lake Merritt: The city banned parking next to Lake Merritt on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and on Memorial Day, until further notice. Vending is also banned, including food trucks. In a press release, Mayor Libby Schaaf tied the decision to weekend overcrowding at the lake.
Housing and homelessness
Housing after COVID-19: KQED asked several housing experts (developers, academics, policymakers, and more) about what happens to the Bay Area housing market now. They think rents will cool, home prices might not drop, inequality will continue to grow, and the very notion of home will change as more people work and learn from their living rooms and kitchens.
Moms make us think: Writing for Teen Vogue, Taylor Crumpton’s examination of the protest concludes that Moms 4 Housing generated support for policies that weren’t as popular just a few years back, including local laws to allow tenants the first right of refusal if their landlord wants to sell their building. Yet another interesting article about the Moms 4 Housing protest and what it could mean for the long-term politics of housing and homelessness.
Whether Oakland actually adopts this kind of law is yet to be seen. Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas has been drafting legislation, but landlords have come out strong against it.