Back in April, the County of Orange received $554 million in emergency CARES Act money from the federal government to help local residents deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, county officials have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for testing, protective equipment, small business grants, county workers responding to the pandemic, and other services.
County officials haven’t released details of how it’s been spent, but they say it’s made a big difference in the lives of residents.
“The needs we have in society in general, but particularly in Orange County, are so many and so great, that whatever stimulus money we receive is really only somewhat of a minimal assistance in terms of the suffering that we see out there,” Supervisor Andrew Do said in answer to a question from Voice of OC at a county news conference Tuesday.
“It sounds like it’s a lot of money on the face of it, but when you factor in the testing for the 3.2 million people, with all the different sectors, and then we look at the way we can stimulate the economy, how to address social needs,” he added.
“As you see the many programs that the Board of Supervisors has stood up over the last 9 months – whether it be [the] economic stimulus grant, to funding for restaurants to be able to buy cleansers, PPEs, buying PPEs for hospitals and health workers. I mean, it runs the gamut…every facet of our community has needs. and it’s our job to help to address many of those.”
So far, the county hasn’t detailed how the hundreds of millions in federal dollars have been spent.
Voice of OC asked the county’s lead spokesperson on Oct. 15 – about a month ago – for a breakdown of how the county allocated its CARES Act money.
As of Tuesday, Nov. 17, county officials had only provided a one-page overview of how a portion of the funds – the $75 million supervisors distributed – were spent. That basic summary says which cities and programs received funding but not who they distributed the money to.
For example, it says $15 million went to the “Small Business Grant Program,” but not which businesses received the funds.
While county officials said in late October that none of the $75 million in supervisor-controlled funds were remaining, supervisors did authorize $6 million in new CARES Act spending on Tuesday.
Under a plan put forward by Do and Supervisor Don Wagner, supervisors allocated $1 million in CARES Act funds to help restaurants move their operations back outside during the winter. Restaurants can apply for $1,000 grants to help buy heaters and tents.
And under another proposal from Do and Supervisor Doug Chaffee, the board approved $5 million in CARES Act money for grants to child care centers throughout the county.
The votes were 4-0 to approve the new spending.
Supervisor Michelle Steel, who recently was elected to Congress, didn’t attend the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday.
The federal CARES Act money is meant to help cover emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, but cannot be used by government to backfill drops in their tax revenue due to the economic slowdown.
When supervisors discussed their plans for the CARES Act money in the spring, there was a lot of discussion about how the funds should be put to use out in the community as fast as possible.
On Tuesday, county supervisors also rolled out what they said would be 500,000 home testing kits for coronavirus between now and the end of December.
Do, responding to Voice of OC’s questions at Tuesday’s press conference, said testing is among the most effective uses of CARES Act funds, because it helps drive down the disease’s spread and thus allows for more opening of the economy.
“That [spread] really is what causes us to shut down, and [causes] a lot of economic impact. So that’s important,” he said of testing.
Do said he “absolutely” supports another round of federal stimulus funding for local governments.
“We will do all we can to advocate for more. And in fact I intend to work with our county lobbyist to make that point, and to encourage the federal government to think more creatively as well in funding directly agencies and municipalities in their work to address Covid-19,” Do said.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.