The risk of getting coronavirus remains low in Orange County, say local health officials, with only six known cases countywide and no evidence of the virus spreading in the county as of Thursday.


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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated as of noon Friday, March 12, to include the latest information below on arts venues cancelling or postponing across the county.


One of the biggest challenges confronting local public officials now is managing community fear, primarily heightened by a rising tide of news headlines about travel restrictions from Europe, a tumbling stock market, canceled public events and now closures of local universities and Disneyland. 

Due to delays nationwide in rolling out testing for coronavirus, officials have focused on limiting or cancelling large gatherings where people would be in close proximity. While public agencies like libraries, John Wayne Airport, the county civic center and local city halls are open for business, officials and labor leaders are working on a transformation of the local workplace to encourage more remote interaction where possible both for workers and the public.

As of Thursday, there were only six known infections countywide, out of the 3.2 million total people in OC. That’s about 1 out of every 500,000 people, far fewer than the thousands of OC residents who have gotten the flu so far this season. There has been no evidence of coronavirus spreading within Orange County, officials have said.

As preventative measures, health officials urged people to continue washing their hands frequently, not touch their eyes, and stay at least six feet away from others as much as possible. At the same time, they emphasized the importance of remaining calm so supplies and infrastructure can be available for those who need it.

Officials on Thursday were urging residents to avoid “panic buying,” where people buy large amounts of food or other products out of fear for their safety.

“Filling up a grocery cart may temporarily calm your worries about [coronavirus], but there are real world consequences – like a surge in prices and a shortage of essential supplies for people who need them most (think face masks for health care workers),” states an advisory from Orange County health officials.


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The nature of the emergency is also altering traditional views about first responders among top officials, with a big focus now on frontline jobs like janitors, public health nurses, doctors, paramedics, nurses and infectious disease experts.

County health officials rolled out plans for a unique phone-in town hall meeting for the public from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday night to provide updated information. (More details here.)

On Thursday evening, a host of large local institutions had announced closures of in-person gatherings as preventative measures. That includes the largest universities in OC – Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, and Chapman University – as well as Disneyland and several conferences at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Local K-12 school districts have been monitoring the situation to decide whether to close in the future, and county officials said they have no plans to shut down essential services.


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For members of the public with questions about coronavirus, OC health officials have a hotline at 800-564-8448 that runs Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Health officials, in response to Voice of OC’s questions about the hotline’s limited hours, said they have the capacity to extend the hours in the future if needed. They apparently had not done so as of Thursday evening.


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Below is the latest on how the new coronavirus strain is – and is not – affecting local services, as of Thursday afternoon.

County & City Halls

The County civic center and most city halls are remaining open for business with officials saying that scheduled public meetings will continue. Officials are primarily asking elderly and sick residents to monitor meetings via video on the internet or use annex rooms to allow for social distancing at public meetings.

After a lengthly closed session meeting Thursday night, Irvine City Council members announced that all city-sponsored community events and recreation classes through the end of April would be postponed. The city’s three senior centers are closed until further notice. 

At the county civic center, all public counters will remain open and officials are concentrating on increasing janitorial coverage to ensure public areas are cleaned on a regular basis.

County officials said they are also working to be more flexible with telecommuting for workers. 

Charles Barfield, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association – which represents just over 18,000 public workers at the county and 20 public agencies – confirmed that workplace adjustments are being examined currently, noting that “OCEA is strongly encouraging employers to proactively consider and implement work arrangements that address not just the safety of workers and the public, but also the unique family challenges resulting from the pandemic.”    

The County Emergency Operations Center is going operational today however press updates are expected to be issued from the county civic center. 

In addition to the closure of large gatherings at the Anaheim Convention Center (see below), the city is also postponing large gatherings of people, coordinating with recreational sports leagues on potential temporary closures and deferring gatherings for seniors. The State of the City address will be rescheduled from March 23 to a new yet to be decided date.

K-12 Schools

No public K-12 schools had closed in Orange County as of Thursday afternoon, according to county education officials.

The county’s school districts decide independently on closures, but are following guidance from the California Department of Education and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The Health Care Agency hasn’t demonstrated any evidence of community transmission in Orange County yet,” said Ian Hanigan, chief communication officer for the Orange County Department of Education.

Hanigan said the state’s guidance has so far been that schools remain open, yet a set of recommendations is provided in the event that community transmission or local cases are found at K-12 schools.

Beyond increased education around cleanliness and cleaning of classrooms, some OC school districts are taking the state’s advice around limiting large attendee events, Hanigan said.

As an example, Irvine Unified is canceling or postponing all field trips and non-essential small and large gatherings.

School officials are planning, though, for the potential of a school shutdown.

“We are making plans so that in the event of a state announced closure we will be able to support teaching and learning at home,” Hanigan said. “I don’t think you are ever going to replace a school day, but we do want to support a continuum of learning.”

Also, school officials are exploring potential ways that students supported by school meal programs could remain supported during a shutdown.

Universities

College campuses across are moving quickly to cancel in-person classes and switch to online instruction, which is ahead of the state’s higher ed recommendations based on no known community transmitted cases in Orange County to date.

Chapman University made the temporary switch starting Thursday, March 12 and is adjusting in-person new student receptions and tours to “virtual events.”

UC Irvine remains open at this moment, but instructors are given flexibility to move this week’s last week of quarterly classes online and final exams next week (starting March 16) will be completed online. The next, spring quarter, of instruction will be shifted to online. Graduate student work will be done remotely whenever possible and students living on campus are recommended to return to off-campus residences or to stay at home during the spring quarter.

Cal State Fullerton is transitioning over the next two weeks to online classes, with “mandatory virtual instruction” March 25 through April 26.

Community colleges are each given disclosure on whether to cancel in-person classes and move instruction online, and statewide more than 41 colleges have made or are making this transition, according to the Chancellor’s Office.

Transportation

County transportation officials say they’re disinfecting and sanitizing the public bus system and other public vehicles, with no planned changes or cuts to service as of Thursday afternoon.

The county’s public buses average tens of millions of boardings a year, and the agency is looking at possible areas on its vehicles — like handrails, seats, seat-belts and windows — that could pose public health risks if a local outbreak occurs.

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) “is taking proactive measures to safeguard the health of OC Bus riders by enhancing the cleaning of all OC Buses, applying antiviral disinfectant to every bus, every night, (and) paying special attention and taking extra time cleaning surfaces that are touched most frequently,” OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter said in an emailed response to questions Thursday.

The cleaning measures will apply to all of the agency’s public service vehicles, with “no changes to service frequency at this time,” Carpenter said.

“It’s important to note that Orange County does not have a [coronavirus] outbreak at this time,” Carpenter said. As a precaution, the agency has set up a “Coronavirus Action Task Force” that he said will work “in direct contact” with county health officials and the CDC.

John Wayne Airport

There are no flights at John Wayne going into or out of any country where coronavirus is widespread, airport officials said Thursday, adding they’re taking steps to sanitize high traffic areas and security checkpoints.

The airport has almost no international flights, said Public Affairs Manager Deanne Thompson, save for one daily nonstop to Vancouver, Canada.

“At this time, Vancouver is not one of the areas where there is widespread COVID-19 where there has to be screening done,” she said. 

If that changes, those passengers are likely to be routed to another airport because John Wayne doesn’t have the health officials, screening or quarantine facilities that can vet, screen, and potentially hold patients with signs of illness, she added.

An informal comparison of the first week of March 2020 versus March 2019 shows an overall drop in the number of passengers, but those numbers have not yet been verified, Thompson said.

“To date, we have not seen any reductions in air service or any route cancellations,” she added.

The airport’s full list of measures, according to its COVID-19 webpage:

  • Increased deep cleaning and disinfecting of high traffic/touchpoint areas, restrooms, and concessions located throughout the Terminal.
  • Increased disinfecting of TSA screening checkpoint surfaces every 3 hours in addition to nightly cleaning.
  • Increased surface cleaning of guest and employee parking shuttles; handles and seats wiped with disinfectant twice a day, in addition to routine cleaning.
  • Installed additional hand sanitizer dispenser stations throughout the Terminal.
  • Added prevention messaging signage to high-traffic areas (digital displays, pop-ups, posters) throughout the Terminal and in passenger holding areas, with information on how to protect and reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses.

Homeless Shelters

Some homeless shelters in Orange County have developed emergency plans to shift their operations in the event of a local outbreak, like changes to handling of bed linens, and even people’s sleeping positions in the shelters.

But there are currently no planned changes to barriers or criteria for admitting homeless people into the multiple OC shelters operated by Mercy House, said Executive Director Larry Haynes.

Haynes emphasized that much of what people know at the time of this story could change in an instant, while adding that “we are not restricting services, not anything of that nature at all.”

“The things that we’re most interested in, obviously, are how do we protect our clients? How do we protect our staff members? How to protect our volunteers — all the people that come into contact with us?” He said. “We’re serving, as you can imagine, quite a large number of very vulnerable people. So, this is something that we take extremely seriously.”

Mercy House operates the Costa Mesa Bridge, The Link in Santa Ana, the HomeAid Care Center in Orange, and Anaheim’s Bridges at Kraemer Place — not to mention the National Guard Armory shelters in Santa Ana and Fullerton during cold weather months.

Mercy House has sent an emergency response plan for staff to follow in the event the situation in OC escalates. Read it here.

Food Banks

Orange County’s food banks are currently working to stock up on resources in the event the local Coronavirus situation ups demand for accessible food among low-income people, working families, and seniors.

“We’re trying to source product now,” said Mike Learakos, executive director for Waste Not OC, a public-private coalition that works to supply food to pantries, food banks and facilities providing food and meal services countywide. 

A staff member in the Orange County Food Bank’s shipping and receiving department told Voice of OC an email was sent to staff that the food bank has been preparing measures in response to the virus.

“The food banks are working hard at trying to source product; we’re trying to source product,” Learakos said. “And then there’s the question of (delivering food to people) … it’s a concerted effort among the food banks and pantries.”

There are hundreds of facilities in the county that offer food pantry and free meal services, though if the situation changes there will be a need for more volunteers, Learakos said.

“In times like this, people do come out and offer to help out and want to participate. Now we’re trying to determine this: what’s the smartest way of utilizing their willingness to help?” Learakos said. 

For anyone thinking of volunteering at one of these facilities, “what might be counterproductive is people just going to a food pantry and saying ‘I’m here to help.’ Right? I think calling ahead, contacting them ahead of time, would be the most prudent way of doing it.”

“Let’s see if they can offer their services and we can deploy them in an appropriate way,” he added.

Those seeking to volunteer at a food bank can call any of the food pantries and meal service facilities listed in this map below, compiled by Waste Not OC. Also, they can contact Waste Not OC directly, Learakos said.

Public Venues & Activities

Disneyland

Throughout the Coronavirus updates the Disneyland Resort remained open to tens of thousands of daily visitors while providing CDC reminders of how to regularly wash hands and of how resort workers were following scheduled and increased cleaning protocols.

Until midday Thursday, March 12.

The Resort’s official announcement reports no known cases of COVID-19 at the resort, but “in the best interest of our guests and employees” the resort will close. The resort will close starting Saturday, March 14 through the end of the month, the resort hotels will stay open through Monday, March 16 and Downtown Disney will remain open.

“Disney will continue to pay cast members during this time,” the announcement reads.

People requesting to change or cancel their visits need to call the Walt Disney Travel Company phone line at 714-520-5050.

Angel Stadium

Major League baseball announced this Thursday that it will postpone the regular season for two weeks and has cancelled the rest of it’s spring training games in lieu of the pandemic.

“Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our fans, players and employees. MLB and the Angels will continue to take the precautions and best practices recommended by public health experts,” according to a statement released by the Angels on twitter.

Honda Center

The Honda Center has postponed all events through March 31 following the National Hockey League’s announcement that it will be pausing 2019-2020 season. 

“Following last night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus – and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point – it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time,” said Gary Bettman NHL commissioner in a statement today.

Anaheim Convention Center

Convention Center events will be canceled or postponed through March 31, such as the cancellation of the Natural Products Expo West.

Knott’s Berry Farm

Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, and all other national Cedar Fair amusement parks, so far remains open as normal. The latest information states a commitment to remind visitors of proper hygiene and ensuring regular park cleaning.

OC Fair & Event Center

As of March 12, the Orange County fairgrounds continues to monitor the situation and several events have so far been canceled. Officials said that unless otherwise noted, events at the center are taking place as scheduled. Updates will be posted on the website, on Twitter and on Instagram.

Community Activities

With the latest recommendations around avoiding large gatherings of people (250 or more), some groups in the community remain guarded while others are canceling current activities.

  • The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts councils in Orange County both are following general guidelines for K-12 schools and remain committed to proper hygiene and social distancing while still continuing small group events.
  • The Little League governing organization has announced a general guideline of suspending activities until at least April 6.

Arts Venues

Moment by moment, the list of closures and cancellations at major Orange County arts institutions due to the COVID-19 outbreak is growing.

While some organizations are starting to cancel or postpone events, performances and exhibitions, some still remain open for business.

If you have plans to attend an event in the near future, we strongly suggest that you check with the organization regarding their cancellation status and ticket refund or exchange policy.

CLICK HERE for the latest information on Orange County arts closures and postponements.

Shopping Centers

No shopping centers or malls have been found so far to have been severely impacted. But even the South Coast Plaza website posted information on coronavirus safety on its website, with reminders of its cleaning practices and stating that it has hand sanitizer available across the shopping center.

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