It’s not just canceled events; coronavirus is changing daily life in Long Beach

Bill Cruikshank needed advice Thursday afternoon.

Cruikshank, who manages Meals on Wheels of Long Beach, said he’s walking a fine line in the age of coronavirus.

These days, someone dropping off food and chatting with senior citizens could mean exposing them to a disease that’s potentially deadly for the elderly or infirm.

But volunteers strapping on intimidating medical masks or avoiding any contact with their charges seemed unthinkable for an organization whose mission revolves around bringing isolated seniors some social interaction.

But when Long Beach Firefighter Jake Heflin answered, he was definitive: As the coronavirus disease COVID-19 spreads, the way you do business must change.

“At some point,” he said, “you’re going to have to make some decisions and say we’re going to deliver the meals and put them on the front porch and you guys can come out and get them.”

Heflin’s message wasn’t just for Cruikshank. He was just one of about 75 healthcare workers, first-responders, community group leaders and city employees gathered in Long Beach’s Emergency Communications and Operation Center Thursday afternoon where city officials prodded them to prepare for life under a pandemic.

Dozens of people gathered in Long Beach’s Emergency Communications and Operations Center to go over their response to the coronavirus. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

As news came down that Long Beach was canceling large-scale events to slow the spread of COVID-19, the city’s disaster preparedness director, Reggie Harrison, told the small crowd they need to think about what steps they’re taking as well:

  • How, he asked, are you protecting your workers or volunteers when they interact with the public?
  • Can you make emergency changes to your budget if your business takes a hit?
  • What happens when 30% of your workforce calls out sick?
  • How will you handle it if one of your employees tests positive for COVID-19?
  • In a worst-case scenario, what are the essential functions your organization needs to perform in order to survive?

“These are the decisions that have to be made,” Heflin said. “And I’m going to tell you, you need to start making contingency plans for that right now.”

Long Beach is still fighting to contain the coronavirus, with only four confirmed cases in the city, all of which can be traced back to a likely point of exposure. But much like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Harrison said, COVID-19 is going to change the way people act and think about the world around them.

Thursday afternoon, Harrison quizzed attendees on how they’re prepping while others in the audience volunteered the steps they’ve already taken:

  • 911 operators and the Red Cross call centers are asking screening questions for possible COVID-19 exposure before deploying to an emergency scene.
  • Long Beach’s in-house mechanics are sanitizing the steering wheels and door handles of every vehicle that comes into their shop. They’re also stocking up on parts in case of a shortage and are prepared to cut back on preventive maintenance like oil changes if they need to focus on only the most serious issues.
  • The city’s building department is trying to find a way to perform remote inspections over FaceTime or Skype.
  • Port of Los Angeles custodians are skipping deep-cleaning work to focus on continually disinfecting hand rails and elevator buttons.
  • A representative from St. Mary Medical Center said they’re prepared to call in backup nurses and doctors if their staff are exposed to COVID-19.
  • And Signal Hill police say they have a contingency plan for officers to essentially move into the station and survive on MREs if staffing shortages demand it.

The plans aren’t being made in panic, Heflin said, minimizing the risk of COVID-19 spreading is something everyone should have on their mind.

“This is all new,” Harrison said.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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