City council members in Huntington Beach are grappling with how to best respond to the Coronavirus — a top priority in the city with the sixth highest case count in Orange County.

The virus has killed 1,943 people as of Wednesday, according to the County’s Health Care Agency

And public health experts and frontline doctors expect Orange County’s coronavirus situation to worsen this month.

“We’re in the darkest days of COVID,” said City Manager Oliver Chi Tuesday at Huntington Beach’s first meeting of the new year held to set the council’s priorities for 2021. 

“We got over 2 million cases in California, there’s only seven other countries outside of the U.S. that have surpassed that mark. It’s a really startling figure,” he said

Chi said there are concerns if the city can maintain ambulance services because hospitalizations are being bombarded.

“The hospitals are so backed up. We’ve had to pull a couple of rabbits out of our hat and shift operations to ensure that when folks call 911 we can get an ambulance to them,” he said.

In the midst of this discussion, new elected Councilmember Tito Ortiz was attending the meeting through Zoom from his car in the parking lot because of his unwillingness to wear a mask which health officials have urged the public to do.

Ortiz posted on his instagram page earlier that day that Mayor Kim Carr did not let him attend the meeting at the Huntington Beach library without a mask. 

“I go in for the meeting and Kim Carr says you can’t go in without a mask,” Ortiz said in his post. “Now I got to do it through Zoom. Great way to start the new year off! Embarrassing.”

A big factor in the Coronavirus response is the economic recovery for businesses. 

Chi said that the city will look to dole out $650,000 in funding for small business grants in January and February.

“I would like the city to still look at what other resources can be used, whether it’s grants,” said Mayor Kim Carr. “Because so many businesses have laid off workers, they’re barely staying afloat right now.”

The city will also be working with the County of Orange to vaccinate residents.

“The county’s goal is to get every single person in Orange County who wants a vaccine to be vaccinated by the Fourth of July. It’s called Operation Independence Day. It’s a large scale countywide process that is getting developed as we speak a lot of moving parts to it. Huntington is going to play a key role in that,” Chi said.

Carr said the city will be doing a series of town hall meetings to inform residents about the vaccine.

City officials will also be prioritizing economic development in the city as well as housing and improving city infrastructure. In 2019, some of the council priorities were also to strengthen the city’s financial stability and enhance it’s infrastructure.

Improving community engagement will be another area of focus for city officials and so is homelessness.

At the end of 2020, the city opened a homeless navigation center intended to not only provide beds but vocational training and mental health services, after years of trying to establish a temporary shelter in Huntington Beach.

City officials acknowledge however that the center will not in end homelessness.

“That’s not what the shelter is,” Chi said. “It provides us with the ability to do targeted enforcement to make sure that our public spaces can be reclaimed for public use.” 

City staff has identified outreach efforts for the center and enforcement as areas that need improvement.

Ortiz said he spoke to homeless folks in the city who do not trust the center.

“They’re not educated on truly what the navigation center is there for and that’s to help them,” he said.

Carr said addressing homelessness needs to continue as a regional approach and that the city should push the state and county for help.

“I think now we really need to dig a little bit deeper and talk about what are the roots of homelessness and what can we do to prevent homelessness,” Carr said.

Chi said the city has an opportunity to work with the county and Be Well OC, an organization dedicated to improving mental health in the county, to address issues of addiction and mental health in the homeless community.

He also said that permanent housing is needed to support the homeless. Chi added that the city’s community development department is looking at Huntington Beach’s inclusionary housing ordinance to bring more affordable housing to the city.

Another priority for the city is economic development and how to attract new business to the city.

Councilman Dan Kalmick said that zoning ordinance in the city has discouraged some businesses from setting up shop in Huntington Beach.

He added that the city should perhaps look into allowing restaurants, breweries and homes in the industrial zone.

“We’re very precious about our industrial zone. It creates an economic engine, if you will, for jobs, but those jobs in the industrial zone aren’t great anymore,” Kalmick said. 

The next Huntington Beach city council meeting will be held on Jan. 19, 2020.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam

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