Santana: What Does Orange County Look Like When It’s Back in Business?

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

San Clemente bike path along Pacific Coast Highway on April 2, 2020.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

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Bolstered by a tapering off of local Coronavirus hospitalizations and mindful of recent public protests as well as sagging sales tax receipts, Orange County supervisors today are expected to start public discussions about how to open the county back up.


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Recessions can be as deadly as a pandemic, says OC Supervisor Don Wagner, who along with Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel, is unveiling today a select group – about a dozen business leaders – that will try to figure out what it takes for the county to once again, go public.

Wagner and Steel have enlisted the help of OC Business Council CEO Lucy Dunn to convene what they are calling the OC Business Recovery Adhoc Committee.

While much of the power to lift stay at home orders rests with Gov. Gavin Newsom, Wagner said a local adhoc group can start thinking of approaches now so when the time comes to ease restrictions, the county is ready with a plan.

The advisory group, which includes a wide array of business leaders like Irvine Great Park developer Emile Haddad and representatives from the Disney resort, is expected to look at industries and help develop appropriate social distancing, masking or other guidelines that can help businesses reopen quickly while not losing the health gains won by the shutdown from the last month.

In order to get back to business, Dunn notes that civic leaders face a key challenge.

“It’s an issue of confidence,” she said. “We have to develop confidence.”

Confidence spurs consumption.

Yet that kind of confidence seems far away.

Note that county supervisors for years have systematically underfunded the health and social service agencies now in high demand and heavily shifted those monies toward traditional law enforcement agencies like the Sheriff, the jails and the District Attorney.

For example, in order to get consumers and workers back into swing, many local officials I interviewed say there has to be a massive testing complex built.

And Orange County is way behind.

Orange County is behind neighbors like San Diego County in testing and has to play catch up to get more testing kits out into the community.

Health Care Agency officials admitted in a Monday press conference when I pressed them that they had to up their game on testing, hinting that some kind of roll out would come as early as today.

Some observers are looking at the county’s biomedical companies – places like the San Juan Capistrano -based Quest Labs – and asking whether these local companies can help the county health care agency get a testing regime up quickly.

Other officials question what local hospitals can do to help step up a testing and treatment regimen.

Note that in the last month, the county basically took over CalOptima by having Health Care Agency head Richard Sanchez move to become CEO of the multi-billion dollar county health insurance plan for the poor and elderly, possibly ushering in an environment of integration of interests and costs never before seen.

Yet beyond health care, there are also vast public service challenges coming.

One of the biggest obstacles facing the County of Orange and the surrounding cities is the massive change in needed services – a shift toward social safety net programs – at the same time that the revenues that fund them like sales tax and state realignment funding are lagging.

Will our network of state and federal elected officials get Orange County taxpayers a fair share of bailout funds to help fund such social and health care programs?

Given the already strained relationship between the county and cities on the sharing of homelessness response costs and impacts, local mayors have already asked the county to just hand over an estimated $500 million in Covid-19 related monies headed locally from the federal government.

Meanwhile, county officials, in turn, don’t seem inclined to boost city general funds.

Yet the biggest immediate change from the Coronavirus may be on transportation.

Most local officials I’ve spoken to agree that as much as a third of the workforce is likely to continue working from home as part of the new economy.

That has massive implications for a series of countywide transportation projects – things like street cars, buses, toll roads and highway projects.

Consider that right now, most people are using local trails and bike lanes much more than highways.

Many residents are rediscovering their local communities as they walk and bike much more than ever.

That’s a trend that local government leaders can tap into and use to stimulate much more small business-based economies that don’t force people to drive all over town.

Think about what that could mean to older communities like Fullerton, struggling with aging infrastructure or places like Irvine, dealing with exploding traffic.

I wonder if most our local malls and office complexes will become the next affordable housing tracts.

Wagner agrees that there is a huge opportunity here to improve not only the economy but our quality of life and environment.

Consider that county parks and beaches are in demand like never before, putting a whole new focus on those agencies and workers that maintain those kinds of public services.

“Fantastic questions,” Wagner said. “This is an opportunity for us to rethink government.”

For example, the County of Orange is in the process of completely recrafting the entire civic center in downtown Santa Ana demolishing a handful of 1970s-era concrete buildings.

What will replace them?

Wagner agrees that the county’s capital infrastructure projects now should be relooked at, glven that remote interactions are likely to increase and counter protections for workers will also have to be developed.

Possibly, the county can stop leasing so many remote buildings around the civic center area and concentrate workers at the civic center structures being planned.

Perhaps this is the time to redraft the county’s strained relationship with the City of Santa Ana in order to redraft what the civic center does for central Santa Ana as well as for the county workforce.

The pandemic also puts into question the county’s longstanding efforts to temporarily shelter homeless people in places like the Courtyard Transition Center in the heart of downtown Santa Ana.

Now is the time to possibly think beyond shelters and start acquiring problematic nearby motels that already are straining county resources by triggering law enforcement calls for service.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett – a realtor by trade – has correctly noted that instead of renting, county officials should be purchasing these kinds of motels and adding them to the county’s stock of permanent supportive housing.

In addition, it’s time to put the United Way effort to contract local landlords for homeless individuals – now operating as.a pilot – into high gear.

It seems that the housing trust that was created in recent years with the goal of creating 2700 units has stalled in terms of financing or building progress.

Thus, moving on motels and apartments might seem the quickest and cheapest way to achieve the goal of efficiently housing the vulnerable and preventing virus outbreaks on the streets.

These are the kinds of big ideas whose time has arrived.

The big question is have we?