A federal judge warned Costa Mesa and Orange County officials on Monday that they face “an uphill battle” in their fight to block the state and federal agencies from sending California Coronavirus patients to Fairview Developmental Center to sit out the virus.
Nonetheless, U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton opted to maintain a temporary restraining order she imposed last Friday for another week, asking federal and state officials to communicate more with their local counterparts before reconsidering the issue next week.
During a news conference after the hearing, Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley said the city will continue fighting to block the federal and state agencies from using the fairview center as an isolation ward.
“We will continue to push back against this very bad decision,” Foley told reporters.
Staton warned both sides if they leave it up to the court, her eventual decision could be one “that’ll make no one happy, which is right up my alley.”
On Feb. 21, Staton blocked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services — along with numerous other state and federal agencies — from placing up to 50 people carrying the virus in the state-owned 114-acre campus surrounded by a golf course.
“I did this in an abundance of caution,” said Staton during Monday’s hearing at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana.
“We’ve had a lot of facts come out for the first time in this hearing,” Staton said near the end of the court hearing.
She also reminded everyone several times throughout the hearing that the patients carrying the COVID-19 virus — commonly referred to as Coronavirus – are Americans.
Staton ordered state and federal officials to meet with Costa Mesa and Orange County leaders to explain what exactly is planned for on the 114-acre site, which is a former center for the developmentally disabled and has also been floated as an idea to house homeless people.
City and County officials – many up for election in next week’s March primary – have complained publicly that they had very little communication from the federal and state government and only found out about the proposal last Thursday to move virus patients to Fairview.
Costa Mesa, under the vocal leadership of Mayor Foley, immediately sued and blocked the move, at least temporarily.
At Monday’s hearing, Judge Staton said the nature of the outbreak prompted natural questioning.
“We are at the very early stages of this outbreak,” said Staton, warning it may become a pandemic.
She also said she didn’t want the transparency problems China dealt with when the virus was first discovered.
“One of the biggest problems was the lack of transparency in the early stages,” Staton said. “For that reason, I do have a number of questions.”
Monday’s hearing comes within eight days of the March 3 primary and County Supervisors Andrew Do and Michelle Steel were in the court hearing. Do is running for reelection and Steel is looking to beat Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) for the 45th Congressional District Mayor Foley is also looking to unseat state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) for the 37th Senate District seat.
Attorney Jennifer Keller, representing the City of Costa Mesa, said the state and federal agencies don’t have credibility because she argued the choice to use Fairview over a site in Alabama was a political one.
“California must not have the pull to get taking off the list, but Alabama does,” Keller told the court.
Keller pointed to Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) Feb. 21 Tweet that said he talked with President Donald Trump to block the isolation center proposal.
“I just got off the phone with the President. He told me that his administration will not be sending any victims of the Coronavirus from the Diamond Princess cruise ship to Anniston, Alabama,” reads Shelby’s Tweet.
But assistant United States attorney Daniel Beck, representing the federal agencies, said state officials opted for the Fairview Developmental Center because state officials don’t want to send California residents to Alabama to be isolated, fearing the move could worsen their health.
Isolation, like what’s being proposed for Fairview, is for people carrying the COVID-19 virus in their system but aren’t being affected by any of the symptoms. It could take up to three weeks for their immune systems to kill the virus, according to court filings.
“What was the medical expertise … the medical base for the decision,” Staton asked Beck.
Beck said the Fairview proposal is for California residents only and it’s unknown what will happen to out-of-state residents who are currently being isolated in Solano County. He also said government-owned land is easier to use for isolating people as opposed to private property.
A CDC website with updated information on the Coronavirus outbreak notes that there are 36 cases among people who have been repatriated to the United States from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and three from Wuhan, China.
“It’s hard to find such a large facility to achieve that level of isolation that the state owns,” Beck said.
Deputy Attorney General, Jonathan Eisenberg, said the Fairview Developmental Center was picked by state officials because it is state-owned land and it has rooms that have their own bathrooms. He also said a golf course surrounds most of the property, which serves as a type of buffer to nearby residential neighborhoods.
Staton said she was concerned about the neighborhoods surrounding Fairview, but also said the city and County don’t have “veto power” over efforts to help address a virus outbreak.
“No one should say ‘Not in my backyard’ as a general rule,” Staton said.
But she told the attorneys for the federal and state agencies that the local officials, like the OC Healthcare Agency, should be provided more details.
“I don’t think anything has been provided to local health officials,” Staton said. “Details are important here.”
Some critics of the plan have argued that because the Fairview center hasn’t so far been found suitable to house homeless people, that means it also shouldn’t be used to isolate people who carry the virus.
“The issue of a homeless shelter is really a red herring,” Eisenberg told the court. “That’s apples to oranges.”
He noted the different types of services each would group would need and the different agencies between addressing the homeless population needs and people who need to be isolated. Eisenberg also said the state is imposing conditions on the federal government to use the center.
Eisenberg also warned Judge Staton that because of the unique nature of the public health risk, coordinating with local officials just wasn’t considered as an option.
“Localities do not get to veto the decision — that would paralyze the whole thing,” Eisenberg said. “This is a fast-moving process and decisions were made quickly.”
Staton interjected, “Apparently there was enough time available to cancel the plans to send them to Alabama.”
Eisenberg argued the issue needs to be addressed quickly because Solano County doesn’t have a plan or a site to isolate the people who are carrying the virus but show no symptoms. He said Solano officials may decide to isolate people in houses, which could make the issues worse because it spreads out the virus carriers into the population.
The people who have symptoms of COVID-19 are being treated at local hospitals, after the symptoms were found during the time they were quarantined at Travis Air Force Base, he said.
“I understand that you need to move quickly, Staton said, adding on behalf of local officials, “all they’re saying is can you communicate with us.”