CVIndependent

Sat07042020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Kevin Fitzgerald

When the state closed down schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, an oft-ignored inequity in the everyday lives of Californians became glaringly obvious: A significant portion of the state’s population still lacks reliable broadband access.

When families without reliable internet have children who can no longer go to a physical school, those students’ chances of educational success decrease dramatically.

“In the Coachella Valley, we met with the superintendents of all three school districts early on in this pandemic, and the distance-learning issue was one of their top challenges,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents much of the eastern Coachella Valley, and serves on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s newly formed Closing the Digital Divide Task Force. “It wasn’t from the standpoint of the teacher not being with the students; it was that they couldn’t even connect with some of the families, because they don’t have the services. They can’t afford it, or the technology and infrastructure just isn’t available.

“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap. Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”

Steve Blum is the president of Tellus Venture Associates, a California management and business-development consulting company for the digital media and telecommunications industries; he specializes in developing new community-broadband systems.

“You’ve got two kinds of problems: long term and short term,” Blum said. “The long-term problem is lack of infrastructure, and that’s not something you can fix this week or this month, probably not even this year. As soon as the schools closed, and the students were told that they’ve got to start doing their work online, this problem just blossomed: It went from just being an annoyance to being a total lack of ability to participate in the 21st century—and now, it’s an immediate problem.”

This problem is not being experienced equally across the Coachella Valley’s three school districts. Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District—which includes schools in Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and parts of Rancho Mirage and Coachella—points proudly to the district’s ability to guarantee reliable broadband connectivity to every student household, often via the district’s own broadband network. Built at the cost of $590,000 for infrastructure development and hotspot devices, with an ongoing cost of $1,300 per month, this project became a U.S. Government General Accountability Office model example of a school “district that defied the odds,” as Bailey put it. To make reliable broadband a given for the district’s 28,000 students, spread over 752 square miles, the district found a way to acquire broadband spectrum-usage permission from the Federal Communications Commission.

“My assistant superintendent, Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened,” Bailey said. “We were talking one day about how we’d never be able to get broadband, and there was no way we could get access to spectrum. How do you even start there? Do you call Sprint and ask for some? That’s not going to happen. So, she said, ‘Why not just call the FCC?’ Long story short, that’s exactly what happened. She was brave and called the FCC to determine how you could acquire it. … Now, we can honestly say that every student in our district should have adequate broadband connectivity, whether on their own or through (our network). We have devices coupled with connectivity to provide an equitable learning and teaching model.”

The reality is less optimistic for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes the schools in much of Coachella, a portion of Indio, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City. Despite the recent distribution by the district of mobile-hotspot devices to roughly 3,000 student households, there are still several thousand more that have no reliable broadband connectivity. Those 3,000 hotspots were made possible because of an alliance formed by the city of Coachella and the school district.

“The city of Coachella did not donate any hotspots,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “CVUSD bought them, but the city got a better deal (from Verizon Wireless) than we did, and they were kind enough to let us purchase at their price—and I can tell you that they are being used. The hotspots are being loaned out to the families, and the district is picking up the cost of the service charges through Verizon Wireless.

“Did they prove useful, and will they continue to prove useful? Absolutely. We’re continuing with summer school, and even students who are not doing summer school are still getting access to some district grade-level challenges and contests, (along with) other fun activities for the students to do that will make them think that they’re not doing (school) work—but they are,” Gandera said with a laugh. “I can tell you that over 1.1 million websites were visited by those students, (and) over 24,700 educational apps were downloaded. They’ve accessed more than 35 terabytes of data using our hotspots as of the first week of June.”

But Gandera has not forgotten about the thousands of students remaining, in her overall student body of more than 18,000, who don’t have one of those hotspots—or any other reliable internet access.

“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” she said. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting. I can tell you that we’re continuing to have conversations with different providers, not only about (additional) hotspots, but also looking for a long-term solution for our valley.”

At the north and western end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District—which includes schools in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Thousand Palms and Sky Valley—is also struggling to cope with the needs of at least 2,000 student households that are currently without reliable connectivity or personal digital devices.

“I think that we’ve been fortunate in that, some four years ago, before I started (in this position with PSUSD), the district and the Board of Education took on the mission of having a 1-to-1 program,” said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon. “They had been very diligently ensuring that students in grades 3-12 had access to devices. Also, they were making sure that our students who didn’t have internet had an ability to get a hotspot from us that we pay for.

“We give them a Chromebook and a hotspot. Normally, students would bring them to and from school on a daily basis, and our younger students wouldn’t have access. But throughout this coronavirus time, we’ve tried to get devices into the homes of our families with young children who don’t have an older child (as well). So we’ve been running these ‘tech depots’ regularly, and giving out new hotspots if hotspots aren’t working, and taking back nonworking Chromebooks and issuing new ones. Right now, we have over 20,000 devices out there.

“There are still a handful of our students for whom the hotspots aren’t helpful, because they’re in a place that doesn’t have a tower or other internet access. So, again, it’s been a challenge—but overall, we’re in a good position.”

Online summer-school sessions are under way in all three valley school districts, as local educators make sure graduating students have their necessary course requirements completed, and support students who may have fallen behind during the school shutdowns. According to Dr. Lyon, in PSUSD schools, “We are providing access for all students online using some of our LCAP dollars and COVID-19-related funding.”

According to the California Department of Education website, the LCAP is a tool the state developed in 2013 “for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals to improve student outcomes.”

“This is not something that we typically would do, but we really (wanted) to try to address some of the learning gaps happening for some of our students right now,” Lyon said. “If you go to our website, it will tell you exactly how to access math and English for our elementary and middle school students. It’s (lessons and activities) that they haven’t done before, because we wanted to make sure that we were giving new opportunities. Also, there are live teacher hours that accompany them as well. The teachers are there to tutor kids through the activities and to help if they’re struggling with any of the concepts. As for high school students, we’re primarily working with kids who need the summer credits to graduate, and credit retrieval to keep students on track for graduation.”

However, that still leaves out the 5 percent of PSUSD students who have questionable ability to access the distance-learning strategies and programs.

“We’ve also been giving out paper (lesson) packets and other materials to the parents of students who come in and pick them up,” Lyon said. “I do think that one of the things we’re finding is that some of our students who aren’t necessarily able to get online with us, they’re doing other things to stay in communication. Once the COVID-19 (impact) is better understood, we’ll know better how we’re going to bring kids back (to schools in the fall). Any of the students that we determine are further behind, we’ll work to get them back on campus.”

A recent survey of 4,300 parents running households of PSUSD students shows that 28 percent plan on their children taking part in a 100 percent distance-learning strategy when fall classes return.

“I think a lot of people who have multiple generations living at home,” Lyon said, “are still unsure and fear the older family members becoming ill.”

But for those student households across our valley that remain without reliable broadband access, the problem won’t be solved before the ’20-’21 school year starts.

“We need people to get these rural areas wired,” Lyon said. “The reality is that this is the world we’re living in, and the more that our homes and our neighborhood businesses are wired and have strong (broadband) access, then the better off our kids will be as far as being competitive in the work world. It’s so important.”

Expensive infrastructure investments will be needed to truly solve the problem.

“The federal government has to step up first—and California supplements the federal money,” said Blum, of Tellus Venture Associates. “There are bills in the U.S. Congress to change these funding requirements, but none of them seem to be going anywhere, so I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Assemblymember Garcia said the state has been distributing about $300 million in funding to locales in desperate need of reliable broadband service through the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Internet for All Now Act of 2017.

“My understanding is that we’ve already seen about $533 million worth of (funding being) requested,” Garcia said. “So, there’s definitely the need for this money to get pushed out. … What I’m discouraged about the most is that very few applications came from our District 56 area—even after making a really assertive effort to get folks in our cities and school districts looking at the program. So we’ve got to do a better job. We held workshops; we had the Public Utilities Commission come down to meet with folks about the challenges in our region. But I don’t believe that we had more than one application from our area or the Imperial Valley.”

Blum said school districts need to do a better job of long-term planning.

“Even if they came up with a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, and got everybody vaccinated by the weekend, this broadband problem is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to become more and more important to have broadband access. … The alternative is to sit and wait and hope that somebody like Charter or AT&T or Comcast is going to show up eventually and fix your problems. That could be a long, long wait.”

Garcia said the pandemic has emphasized the seriousness of the broadband-access problem.

“We’re not only talking about the student needs, but we’re talking about mom and dad having to work from home, or the small-business owner who has to change their model of how they deliver a service or a product,” Garcia said. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury or an amenity. It’s a necessity for achieving not just economic opportunities, but we’re clearly seeing uses now in telehealth services, public-safety communications and smart agricultural technologies. So our challenge as this Closing the Digital Divide Task Force moves forward is not just to address the needs of our students, but the overall need to expand our infrastructure. This crisis is presenting an opportunity.”

A group of people—mostly born and raised in Indio—organized a rally on Tuesday, June 9, at Miles Park to fight for racial equality and urgently needed policing reforms.

The group called itself We Are Indio—and called the event #NoMoreHashtags.

One of the organizers was Erin Teran, a nurse at a local hospital.

“There were five of us,” Teran said about the organizing group. “Three of us have grown up together. (Indio City) Councilmember Waymond Fermon and I have been friends since kindergarten, and April Skinner and I have been friends since we were really young, too. Our parents were even friends. They’re both people I talk to all the time, and we always support each other.”

The other two members of the team are Maribel Pena Burke and Kimberly Barraza, Teran said.

“When the whole George Floyd incident happened, I was so upset and emotional about it, because one of the things that Waymond and I talk about all the time is (his fear) that it could have been him, and that could have been his fate,” Teran said. (Fermon is Black.) “I think people forget that, and I just felt so emotional and sad. We just really wanted to do something. I think part of it for me was that it’s important I acknowledge the privilege that I have because of my white skin and blond hair. So I think it’s important that I’m standing with my friends and my community to say, ‘This isn’t OK.’”

The rally was initially scheduled to take place on Monday, June 1—but just hours before the scheduled start time, Riverside County invoked a 6 p.m. countywide curfew.

“Part of the group felt that we should just do it and hold (the vigil) anyway,” Teran said. “But we also wanted to be respectful. We felt that we needed to respect the policy (decisions) even when we didn’t agree with them. We did feel that we should have the right to go out and peacefully assemble, but sometimes you just have to do the right thing, even when you feel like it’s wrong, so we decided to go ahead and reschedule it. It took a lot of work, so it was very frustrating—but there were some positive things that came out of having to postpone the event. There were people who couldn’t come on the original date, who we really wanted to have participate. Once it got rescheduled, we were able to get some of those people. We had more time to do some things, like go out and write the names in chalk of (victims of police brutality) who had passed over the last years. That was something small, but for us, it was meaningful.”

The We Are Indio team received some criticism after announcing the event.

“Originally, I think somebody put out a flier that matched ours, and it said people shouldn’t attend this vigil, because it was being organized by white people and the police,” Teran said. “It was obviously upsetting to see that. I’m actually a Latina, but I have blond hair, and I’m very fair-skinned. I felt that we were trying to say that it doesn’t matter who you are: Right now is the time to stand up and have a voice, and to say that Black Lives Matter. It’s just such a really important cause to me. I know a lot of the stories that my friends have experienced, and it’s very emotional to hear those things.

“I know some of the things that (Fermon) experienced as a young man. He’s been on the side of being in law enforcement, but he’s also been on the side of having the barrel of a gun pointed at him. When you hear those things, obviously, you want to stand up for your friends. But it’s more than just your friends. This is an issue nationwide, and it needs to be addressed. It’s been going on for far too long.”

Teran said she asked Fermon what they should do about the negative feedback.

“He said, ‘You know what? Just keep going. We know what we’re doing. We’re just going to focus on having a positive event in our community.’ And I think that’s what we did. I think we were able to accomplish that.”

Indeed, Teran said she was pleased at the turnout.

“Although I believe there were a couple of outsiders who did show up, we had a lot of people (attending) who grew up in Indio, and they knew that our intentions were to have a peaceful gathering and to really be able to come together as a community,” Teran said. “Something so different about Indio is that we all grew up with a very diverse mix of friends. Although we all know that we have different colors of skin, it’s just something that we didn’t pay attention to. There are people who grew up with us who are now part of the police department, but when we come together, we come together as one. So when those outsiders (who may have had ill intentions) showed up, there were (attendees) who made it clear that’s not what we were looking for. It was great to see people coming up to speak to the City Council members, and I even saw some people go to talk with the police chief (Mike Washburn, who attended) about some of the issues that they were facing. That’s what we were trying to do. We wanted to create a dialogue and have transparency and (talk about having) oversight over the policies taking place. We want to create an environment where we can see positive change and look forward to the future.”

As for that future: Teran said people need to stay engaged.

“We had several community members reach out to us to say, ‘We’ve got to keep this going. This was so wonderful,’” she said. “So one of the things we’ve discussed is trying to do some kind of community barbecue in the future. We definitely need to encourage members of our community to be out there and to have a voice.

“It’s more important than just one day of action. Going to a protest or a rally is so very important, because we have to be able to assemble and have a voice—but young people have to understand that you need to have a voice at City Council meetings and Board of Supervisors meetings, too. You need to call in and comment to make sure that you’re heard. It can become very important in the decision-making process. We did have voter registration out at our event, and we kept trying to impress the fact that it’s not just important to register to vote—but it’s so important to come out in November and actually vote. Work on a campaign; make some phone calls; help to mobilize and organize, because we have to get those people out of positions of authority who are not willing to be transparent and work with the community.”

Teran also emphasized how important social-distancing guidelines were at the vigil—and will continue to be moving forward.

“For us, it was really important to follow the social-distancing guidelines—and I’m a very big advocate of wearing facial masks,” Teran said. “We took a lot of precautions cleaning, and each speaker or performer had their own microphone cover. We designated places for people to sit, so we really did follow social guidelines. I think it’s important for people to know that (COVID-19) is a very real thing, and it’s very important to follow those guidelines.”

For more information on We Are Indio, visit www.facebook.com/groups/2656275024692257.

Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, parks and streets around the country and world have become staging grounds for massive outpourings of frustration and anger over systemic racism in the United States.

On Monday, June 1, a Black Lives Matter protest took place at Palm Desert’s Civic Center Park, organized by a self-described band of “newbie” community organizers who wanted their voices heard. Their Instagram account is called Coachella Valley Activists.

The group originally called for an evening protest on El Paseo. However, on the day of the gathering, the group moved the event to Palm Desert’s City Hall-adjacent Civic Center Park—and made the start time earlier in response to a countywide curfew.

“For everyone, it was their first time staging a protest rally,” said Angel Moreno, one of the organizers. “Our team is more than 20 people. It’s a big group. But, actually, it started with an idea between my friend and me. All of our friends talked about how there should be a protest on El Paseo in Palm Desert, but nobody ever took the initiative to make one (happen). So, we had the idea of making one, and he made a page (on Instagram). I helped set it up, and I was contacting everyone to spread the news to actually make a protest in Palm Desert. Everyone agreed, and shared and talked to people.”

Moreno said his group wanted to “wake up the people in the valley” about unacceptable things going on in the world.

“A lot of lives are being lost, and a lot of police brutality is happening, and the police are not being held to account for it,” Moreno said. “This group is very diverse. We have white, Mexican, Black, Asian (and) gay (members)—and it hurts our African-American friends more. I’m Latino, and I do feel it, but it hurts to see them hurt. And now, even with everything that’s going on in the world, Latinos are getting abused by police and discriminated against. What’s happening right now is just really unacceptable, and we wanted to do this protest so our words could be heard.”

When the group’s Instagram post announcing the protest started getting attention, various people and media sources—the Independent included—reached out and asked who the Coachella Valley Activists were. There was no response before the protest; we asked Moreno why.

“That’s just because there were a lot of messages going on,” Moreno said. “We didn’t expect our page to blow up, but when it did, there were so many messages and comments, and we were really just overwhelmed. We tried to get to as many as we could, but only my friend and I have the account.”

Moreno said he is happy the group decided to move the protest from El Paseo to Civic Center Park. After rioting and looting took place in cities around the country over the weekend—and after a quickly retracted Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce Facebook post the night before inaccurately claimed “busses are arriving already with people”—concerned El Paseo business owners boarded up windows and braced for the worst.

“It was a great thing that we changed the location, and not just due to the fact that everyone was asking us to please not do it on El Paseo because of all the businesses,” Moreno said. “We weren’t going to do anything, but then we thought, ‘Well, let’s move to another area, because we don’t want to cause any problems.’ Even though we weren’t going to (cause problems), people thought we were. So we wanted them to know that we heard them. That’s why we decided to move it.

“Also, we were getting a lot of followers and people saying that they were going to come, and we knew we’d need a bigger area.”

That surprising level of engagement, coming from an Instagram account just a few days old, continued to grow right up to the start time.

“When my group and I first showed up,” Moreno said, “we saw protesters there already, even before the scheduled start time, which was really surprising. We said, ‘Oh my god, this is a whole lot of people.’ There were at least 150 people already there, and as time went by, it just kept increasing more and more. It was so amazing to see so many people. We didn’t expect it to be this big. Not at all. I mean, we were just amazed.”

The rally itself was, by design, a free-form event.

“Here’s the thing: We didn’t want it to be about ourselves,” Moreno said. “We didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, we’re the protesters, and we made this (demonstration).’ We didn’t want that. We wanted the people to be heard. Everyone could take a turn speaking and talking. It was just amazing how organized it was—for not being organized. It was truly amazing, because it was really peaceful. There was no violence at all. Everyone just took turns talking, chanting and speaking their truth. Eventually, we thanked everyone for attending, and then we started marching down Fred Waring past Monterey towards Highway 111.”

Moreno described what happened as the 6 p.m. countywide curfew approached.

“We turned around and went back to City Hall, because we wanted to keep protesting,” Moreno said. “Then, once it hit 6 p.m., which was the curfew time that came out that day, we told everyone that they should leave for their own safety. But a lot of people wanted to stay. We kept telling people to leave, because we didn’t want anybody to get hurt at all. We didn’t want the police to do anything. But, thankfully, people did stay after 6 p.m. … While I was being interviewed (on TV news) exactly at 6 p.m., the crowd kept going eastward on Fred Waring, and they stopped close to downtown Palm Desert. I was asked then if I thought all the (attendees) were leaving, or if they were going to continue to protest. I told (the news) they didn’t want to leave, because this was very important to them, and they wanted their voices to be heard.

“I got interviewed for just a few minutes, and then we followed the rest of the group. That’s when the police started covering the street (around us), and we told people not to do anything stupid and just keep our distance. We had, like, six car lengths of distance (between the line of police and the group of demonstrators), and we weren’t doing anything. We were kneeling down and chanting when out of nowhere, the police threw a smoke grenade. First one, and then around four more of them started throwing (the smoke grenades). People took it easily, because it was just smoke. They backed up away from the police and tried to get out of the smoke. So, everyone wasn’t running or (being) violent or anything. They were just trying to move out of the way.”

Moreno admitted the COVID-19 pandemic was indeed a concern.

“But it would be hard to tell people to stay six feet away from each other, and also to be in formation (while demonstrating),” he said. “So we were concerned about the coronavirus, but we told people before the protest even happened to not touch each other, and that they should wear masks. We wanted people to be safe, but the protest was happening, and it was more important than the pandemic right now. I don’t think people are even thinking about the pandemic while they’re protesting, because they’re speaking out of anger. They’re speaking from their hearts.”

What’s next for the Coachella Valley Activists?

“Right now, we’re supporting other protests that are happening around the Coachella Valley. Also, we’re (gathering a list and) sharing the names of black-owned businesses. Because our page blew up so big, we now have a lot of followers in the valley, and we just want to share our platform with other groups.

“I do want to say that we did this not for ourselves, but for everyone around the world,” Moreno said. “We want to be part of the change that’s happening right now, and we want the people in our cities to be heard. We don’t want to be silenced, and we just want peace. That’s all we want.”

For more information, visit www.instagram.com/coachellavalleyactivists.

There was no Palm Springs Power baseball on Friday, May 29—what was supposed to be team’s opening day.

Rather than an umpire calling out “Play ball!” and cheers from the crowd wafting on hot evening breezes, Palm Springs Stadium—like virtually all baseball stadiums around the country—was empty, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to play some sort of season later in the summer,” said Power vice president of baseball operations Justin Reschke during a recent phone interview. “Kind of the silver lining in this is that the college players who would come out to play for the team are (uncertain) if they’re going back to school, and they are very eager to play. We have local players, and even from other parts of Southern California, who are close enough to commute back and forth for Power games. So we’re not looking at bringing in 30-35 (collegiate) players from all over the country—like we normally would—and having them stay with host families like we have (in the past).

The Power is usually the leading team in the Southern California Collegiate Baseball League, and consists of college players—usually, at least—from around the country.

“If, at some point this summer,” Reschke said, “we’re allowed to open up and host games for even a small number of fans, that would be kind of our ultimate goal. So we don’t have a definite plan for the Power, but we have players who are eager to play. We have coaches who are willing to get on the field. We’ve heard from dozens of fans who call our office every week for an update. We’re ready to go as soon as we’re able to—but we’re not going to jump the gun and do something before it’s safe and before we’re sure that it’s the right decision.”

In the meantime, team owner Andrew Starke and Reschke have other baseball enterprises that will operate this summer despite the pandemic

“We also operate the Palm Springs Collegiate League, which is a league for all levels of college baseball players,” Reschke said. “Whereas the Power team is mostly focused on Division I college players from all over the country, the collegiate league is focused on Division I, Division III, NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) players and junior-college players. Last year, we had 10 teams in the PSCL, all playing in the mornings at Palm Springs Stadium. The goal (for the players) is to play some summer ball, so that when they go back to campus in the fall, they have improved their game, and they can compete for a more prominent role on their school team.”

The Power brain trust has moved this year’s PSCL program to a little town called Ranger, Texas, onto to the campus of Ranger College.

“The biggest (attraction) was that, in the county where this school is located, they’ve only had four cases (of SARS-CoV-2 virus), and they haven’t had a new case since the middle of April,” Reschke said.

(Since we spoke to Reschke, that total had, as of today, risen to seven, not counting a possible nursing-home cluster.)

“We like the isolation of it,” Reschke said. “And we like that we can go and, essentially, take over this whole college campus for a month and play all of our games in that type of (closed) environment. Everything will be self-contained. The players will be staying on campus, playing there and eating there. The players can get their work in, because a lot of them will not have stepped on a baseball field since March, and they’re eager to get out there.”

Back to Palm Springs and the 2020 Power season, we asked about protocols that might be necessary for players, staff, fans, etc., to observe while operating safely and confidently during games at Palm Springs Stadium.

“We have started to put together our plan,” Reschke said. “Because if Gov. Newsom says sports can resume, and … we can have gatherings of, say, 50 people or whatever (the number) is, we’ve got to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. We’ve reviewed the protocols that the NFL will be using when they return—and obviously, those are a lot more beefed up than what we may be able to do—but we’re looking at what some of the MLB proposals are as well. We’re definitely looking at social-distancing factors, and luckily, Palm Springs Stadium is big enough. It has a seating capacity of around 4,000 (spectators). So if we’re talking a couple of hundred fans in the stands, we can absolutely make sure that (everyone’s) spread out. We’ve got (spray) misters all over the stadium, so wherever they sit, they’re going to be comfortable. We’ll follow whatever local guidelines there are for face masks, and for checking the temperatures of customers who enter the business. Whatever it takes, that’s what we’ll do.

“From the players’ side, we’ve looked at everything from what’s being done with the Korean Baseball Organization, which has been playing for a few weeks now in Korea, with umpires and coaches wearing masks. We’re looking at doing some social distancing with our players, like having players who aren’t actively in the game sit in the stands or stay in the clubhouse while spread apart, because we have two very large clubhouses in the Palm Springs Stadium.”

Fortunately, the potential lost season has not caused an insurmountable financial obstacle for the operation.

“From a revenue standpoint, we do generate revenue from our PSCL, because those players pay a fee to participate in that,” Reschke said. “We generate revenue from our California Winter League, which is kind of the same thing (as the PSCL), but for professional players and aspiring professional players. Those are the two (initiatives) that drive our business (model). The Power is more for the community and the players we commit to giving a spot to play for the summer, as well as the coaches that we work with. Of course, it’s for the community, No. 1, and certainly we want to have fans in the stands so we can entertain them, and let them come in and have a hot dog and a beer and enjoy baseball the way it should be enjoyed.

The Power may play games without fans as well.

“It’s about getting the players on the field. It’s about having something for them,” Reschke said. “We’re there in the stadium whether fans are there, too, or not, so we might as well use it and have something going on. I guess our biggest expense would be turning the lights on, so if there’s no fans, maybe we look at playing earlier in the day—say, in the mornings, when it’s cooler.”

Reschke concluded on an upbeat note: “We’ll be focused first on getting players back on the field, and then we’ll be looking at whether we can have 50 fans, or 200 fans—and what does that look like? Hopefully, there will be some good news, and we’ll see. Obviously, there are a lot of questions.”

For more information, visit palmspringspowerbaseball.com.

On May 8, the Desert Ice Castle announced it was closing for good, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason.

“It is with great sadness and regret that—due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and despite our best efforts to remain in business—Desert Ice Castle has no choice but to cease operations, effective immediately,” read the notice at deserticecastle.com, where various equipment from the facility is now on sale.

While the pandemic has caused many valley businesses to close—and will sadly claim many more before it’s all over—COVID-19 may have simply been the final nail in the figurative coffin of the Cathedral City rink.

On April 13, 2018, the Desert Ice Castle filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy with the United States Bankruptcy Court’s Central District of California in Riverside. The rink apparently settled with its creditors, staying open—but on Dec. 13, 2019, Desert Ice Castle, LLP, owned by Anthony Liu, filed both a Certificate of Dissolution and a Certificate of Cancellation with California’s Secretary of State Office.

Regardless of the cause of the Desert Ice Castle’s demise, the closure left Coachella Valley hockey-lovers devastated.

“I was really sad, and kind of emotional,” said Katie Evans, president of the Coachella Valley Youth Hockey Foundation. “For me personally—speaking now as just a hockey mom and not as the foundation president—my son has spent six years of his life in that rink. He’s made some of his very best friends in that building, and so have I. We’ve gotten to know wonderful people in our community while we’re standing together against the glass watching our kids play, and he has spent wonderful moments on the ice and on the bench there. He’s had birthdays there. We’ve celebrated Christmas with our teammates there. So the whole idea of that building not being there anymore is just really sad. It’s meant a lot to us. It’s been an important place in our lives, and we’re just really sad that it won’t be around anymore.

“From the perspective of the Hockey Foundation or anyone who’s involved in hockey locally, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Our hockey programs (have been) so great here, and we have so many wonderful coaches and players. We’ve already struggled (in the past) to keep those programs robust. Now, of course, not having a local rink will (make it) difficult for players and their families to keep playing.”

Adults who relied on the ice rink—the only regulation-size hockey rink within at least 50 miles—for their skating enjoyment have been left in the lurch as well. Justin Reschke, the vice president of business operations for the Palm Springs Power Baseball Club, has been a player in the Ice Castle’s Adult Hockey League for six years.

“I was disappointed. I was sad,” Reschke said. “It was something to look forward to each week. After you’ve been playing with the same group of guys for several years, (it’s hard) to have that taken away all of a sudden—especially now, when you’re looking forward to slowly resuming normal activities.

“I guess some of the writing was on the wall, but I don’t think any of us thought when we walked out of the rink the last time back in March, that would be it.”

In order to keep playing, Reschke said he and his teammates will probably start making trips to Riverside.

“The Los Angeles Kings help operate a rink out there, and many players who lived here and played at DIC have also played out in Riverside,” he said. “It’s a little farther drive, but I’m sure we’ll figure out carpools. There were five teams in our league, so, from across the whole league, we should be able to get, hopefully, a couple of full teams to head out there.”

Evans said her group remains committed to helping keep local hockey kids on the ice.

“The foundation is here to support players and their families.” Evans said. “So we’ll focus on continuing that effort, whatever needs to happen. If our players decide that they’re going to go play in Riverside or Ontario, or another rink that’s within driving distance, we’ll do our best to support them. Maybe it will be by helping with the player fees, because now the parents would be spending lots of money on gasoline. Or maybe someone needs a scholarship, or we can help out again with gear.

“We’ll look at ways to continue to support our local players until there’s another facility that they can use here locally,” Evans said. “And we have high hopes for that. The (American Hockey League) team that’s intending to come and play in Palm Springs is a big deal. It would provide a facility again—the proposed Palm Springs arena home to the AHL team would include two ice rinks—and hopefully, (it will bring) more attention to hockey as a sport.

“And who knows? I don’t know how long it will take to build that rink, but maybe another opportunity will arise where someone else builds a rink.”

While the pandemic and the resulting financial crisis have cancelled sports, live entertainment and large events for the time being, work is apparently proceeding on the New Arena at Agua Caliente. For a status update, the Independent reached out to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which connected us with the Oak View Group, the company that will operate the arena.

“The New Arena at Agua Caliente in Palm Springs will feature two ice rinks, and we anticipate that in addition to its place as the home of AHL Palm Springs, that it will be accessible to the Coachella Valley ice-sports community,” said John Bolton, senior vice president of entertainment with the Oak View Group, in a statement. “Given the current unprecedented times, discussions around arena construction timelines continue, and we will provide updates when available as we work closely with the city of Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.”

Reschke said he is keeping his fingers crossed that construction remains on schedule.

“It would be tremendous to have a new rink that’s a top-notch facility right here in the community of Palm Springs,” Reschke said. “That’s something that a lot of the players at the Ice Castle had a lot of interest in. So let’s hope that’s still part of the plan and that it’s still on schedule for 2021, or close to it. Then, hopefully, we can get on it right away and reinvigorate the adult hockey community right here in the Coachella Valley.”

Water infrastructure is finally coming to three underserved portions of the eastern Coachella Valley—if state budget cuts don’t get in the way.

After nearly six years of work by Castulo Estrada, the rest of the Coachella Valley Water District board and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, the water district announced in early May that the State Water Resources Control Board had approved two construction grants, totaling about $3.3 million. The funds will be used to complete three projects that will bring safe, reliable water service and fire protection to two disadvantaged communities and one elementary school in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The reason we put out the press release was because the financial agreement was executed,” said Estrada, the CVWD board’s vice president, during a recent phone interview. “Once an agreement has been executed, it’s a contract between the state of California and the CVWD for the execution of the project (for which) the money had been requested, in this case the three east valley projects. That allows us to move forward with bidding the project, so that we can move on to construction. We’ve initiated that (bidding) with money from the CVWD’s own budget. I believe we’ve begun advertising, and these three projects are being presented as a package. The same contractor would construct the necessary works for connecting these systems the public system. The last I heard, we were shooting to award the contract sometime in July, and start construction sometime between the end of July and the fall.”

Garcia, who chairs of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, welcomed the funding in a news release.

“Together with partners like the Coachella Valley Water District, we have been leading a concerted effort to address the eastern Coachella Valley’s severe water disparities,” he said in the release. “Last year, we focused our legislative endeavors (on) creating a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to ensure that California dedicated investments towards long-standing water infrastructure needs of underserved areas like ours. I am proud to see our advocacy and hard work result in these state grants that will go a long way in supporting our goal of improving water connectivity and public health for our families and students."

However, the good news arrived just as the state and country were falling into the deepest and most-sudden recession in history, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Estrada if he was concerned state budget cuts could possibly negate the funding commitment.

“No, these monies have been accounted for,” he said. “But what I think might be at risk—not just for water-related projects, but for all budgets within the state of California—are those (grant applications) that will come up in next year’s budget process. These (projects) have already been encumbered. So, I don’t have any worry about these projects stalling.”

The Independent reached out to the SWRCB to verify that the grant funding was, in fact, completely secure. Public information officer Blair Robertson responded via email: “The bottom line is that there is no irrevocable commitment. That said, we are not aware of the funding for the Coachella projects being proposed for cuts by the governor.”

According to the SWRCB, all grants are subject to a set of terms and conditions, the 18th of which states: “The State Water Board’s obligation to disburse funds is contingent upon the availability of sufficient funds to permit the disbursements provided for herein. If sufficient funds are not available for any reason, including but not limited to failure of the federal or state government to appropriate funds necessary for disbursement of funds, the State Water Board shall not be obligated to make any disbursements to the recipient under this agreement. … If any disbursements due the recipient under this agreement are deferred because sufficient funds are unavailable, it is the intention of the State Water Board that such disbursement will be made to the recipient when sufficient funds do become available, but this intention is not binding.”

Once the connections are built between the CVWD’s existing water-delivery infrastructure and the Oasis Gardens Mobile Home Park, the Thermal Mutual community and the Westside Elementary School, the district will add roughly 200 new customers. While, without a doubt, these projects are necessary, the Independent asked Estrada if he was concerned the new clients may have difficulty keeping up with the monthly water-service charges, especially given the economic downturn.

“That hasn’t been a concern,” he said. “Obviously, before the project moves forward and the monies are appropriated, there is a need to enter into consolidation agreements. There were a number of workshops put together to engage the community and let residents know exactly what it means to get hooked up. Information about bills, and things like that, are explained up front, so that there are no surprises and so that there’s buy-in. All of that took place. Our water (comes) at a very affordable rate, and I think folks are happy when they’re able to connect to our system. I think that their concern about not having access to safe drinking water for themselves, and their families and their kids, outweighs any concern that they might have about a bill.”

While the financial crisis is obviously a huge concern, Estrada said he was confident other needed infrastructure projects in the eastern Coachella Valley would receive strong consideration from the state whenever funding is available.

“When the new funding called the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund was created and signed into law last year … (the legislation) created the fund, but it also directed the SWRCB to put together an advisory group, because there was no (statewide) plan. What gets funded? What is the expenditure count? What are the priorities? … It’s made up of 19 people from across California, and I’m one of them. I think we’re very well represented in Sacramento now. We are at the table, and we’re constantly engaging with the SWRCB and their staff. Personally, I now know the SWRCB members in Sacramento, and I’m very happy to know them. We’re in constant communication to the point where (the SWRCB) advised us that … since we have (over the last several years developed detailed) water- and sewer-project master plans (identifying roughly 40 water- and 80 sewer-hookup projects in the east valley) that total multi-millions of dollars in infrastructure investments, they want to help us enter into bigger financial agreements (with the state). So rather than doing small agreements almost on a per-project basis, the next thing that we’re working on is an application for a group of water-related projects that would require a $20 million grant.”

After a legal process that took nearly a year, the city of Palm Desert has finally moved to a district-based city voting system … sort of.

On April 30, the Palm Desert City Council—meeting online due to the COVID-19 pandemic—voted 5-0 to enact the new system. One large district, including the vast majority of the city, will be represented by four council members, while the tentatively named Civic Center Core District will have one representative.

The City Council had also planned to adopt a ranked-voting system in advance of this year’s city elections, but instead decided to put that off for two years due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Karina Quintanilla is one of the two plaintiffs who sued the city in June of last year, alleging that the city’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Similar suits have forced cities across the state, including other Coachella Valley cities, to move from at-large to district-based voting in recent years. During a recent phone interview, Quintanilla—who fought for a five-district system throughout the process—said her feelings on Palm Desert’s new voting system were decidedly mixed.

“I cannot say that I’m satisfied,” Quintanilla said. “I can say that I’m disappointed that we did not get the five districts. But I am pleased that we’ve started a conversation. When Lorraine (Salas, the co-plaintiff) and I were faced with the decision (whether to settle the lawsuit), we knew that it’s very difficult to get things right the first time. But our hope was to generate a conversation—a platform to launch forward to the five (districts option). That’s something that I feel we did achieve, so I feel very pleased with that component.

“What we really wanted, though, was the ability to have districts, because that would allow people to relate directly to one representative.”

Quintanilla and Salas agreed to a settlement with the city in November, launching a process in which city residents were asked to offer input on the new voting system. At the first public presentation on the matter in January, city representatives made the two-district system seem like a foregone conclusion, before taking a more open and honest approach in subsequent meetings. Still, throughout the entire map-creation process, not one five-district map was offered to the City Council by the National Demographics Corporation, a company hired by the city to guide the map-creation effort—despite the fact that a five-district outcome was the stated preference of Quintanilla and Salas.

“Our perspective and our desire was to simply make a civic impact and have more people fully represented on the council,” Quintanilla said. “We were just looking at: How do we improve the city? We didn’t feel that draining the city funds through a long, drawn-out lawsuit was going to deliver any benefit. And now I’m even happier about that (decision on our part), because we couldn’t have anticipated that there would be this global pandemic nor the economic impact.

“So now we’ve come full circle, and we’re OK with postponing the ranked-choice voting. The city has much more important things to do, like taking care of its residents, rather than making that shift in the electoral process.”

While Quintanilla said she views the new voting system as just one step in an evolving process, Palm Desert’s council members spoke as if the process was complete—even though the city, at the least, will need to revisit the map after the results of the 2020 Census are released.

“This has been a long, difficult and challenging process,” councilmember Sabby Jonathan said prior to the final vote. “I want to thank all of the residents who came in and offered their input, opinion and perspective. It did help shape the final result. I think this was a situation where there were a lot of competing pros and cons, and benefits and downsides and upsides, and at the end of the day, I’m hopeful, and I believe that we crafted a method for moving forward that creates tremendous balance for all of the concerns that have been expressed.”

The Independent asked Doug Johnson, the president of the National Demographics Corporation—the company hired to help with the map-making process—what the city would need to do once the Census results are released.

“Following the release of the 2020 Census data, the city will have to revisit the adopted map,” Johnson wrote in an emailed response. “If the current districts remain reasonably population-balanced and in compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act, the revisiting could be as simple as affirming the same lines. But the council does have the option to revise the lines even if population-balanced. It is, however, highly likely that the 2020 Census data will determine the districts are not sufficiently population-balanced, necessitating adjustments to at least bring them into compliance with federal law. California's ‘FAIR MAPS Act’ sets the minimum process the city has to follow for any post-2020 Census revisiting of the districts, including some timeline rules and a requirement for at least four public hearings or workshops.”

Beyond any changes the city may make after the Census data is released, there is always the possibility of another California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city and its unconventional new district map.

“According to the settlement agreement,” Quintanilla said, “Lorraine and I are barred from suing the city on this issue. So another resident will have to take over the helm and move it into phase two after the Census is over.”

Quintanilla, however, expressed optimism that the city would be open to input from residents moving forward.

“I had the opportunity to speak with councilwoman Kathleen Kelly, who was very gracious and very thoughtful,” Quintanilla said. “Moving forward, the ability to collaborate will make the city better.”

That olive-branch moment seemed to have resonated with Kelly, Palm Desert’s current mayor pro tem.

“I want, very enthusiastically and on behalf of the city, to thank the plaintiffs for collaborating to assess the appropriate implementation date for ranked-choice voting,” she said at the April 30 meeting. “They’ve shown a true interest in what’s best for the community, and we’re highly appreciative.”

Although the gates remain closed at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, anyone can hop onto social media to see some of the unusual breeds of animals that call this desert enclave home—all while learning from the videos, photos and descriptive content developed by the park’s team in an accelerated fashion these days.

The aim is to inform visitors about the daily lives of this nonprofit zoo’s residents—while inviting visitors to make a much-needed donation.

“We have 450 animals here who depend upon us,” said Allen Monroe, The Living Desert’s president and CEO, during a recent phone interview. “We have a commitment to them, and we’re fortunate enough to have a great animal-care team here, and a veterinary team to help support them.

“Our first action (when the shelter-at-home orders were announced) was to make sure that the needs of the animals were going to continue to be met for whatever length of time we were forced to be closed to the public. We ensured that we had months of different kinds of foods supplied to us, and all the veterinary medicines that we could project needing over the next couple of months. This way, if there are supply-chain interruptions, we’ll be able to go forward with our operations without external resources. This is part of what a modern-day zoo does. These animals are here as ambassadors for their species, and we’ve got really strong commitments for their care. We have to make sure that we can accommodate those, no matter what the situation might be.”

Part of guaranteeing the safety of these ambassadors from desert regions all over the world is managing the financial challenges brought on by the massive economic downturn that’s a result of the pandemic.

“Once the county health department closed down our park as a gathering place, our first concern was on a financial basis,” Monroe said. “We rely on gate-generated revenue for the majority of our operating expense budget. Unfortunately, we were at the start of spring break, our busiest time of year. It’s when we make enough money to help us get through the times in the summer when, because of the heat and the (drop in) tourist traffic, it is actually a money-losing time for us.

“Fortunately, we’ve practiced a number of scenarios (that focus on us) continuing our business operations. We have drills on a regular basis for everything from fires to earthquakes and things like that—although we never planned for a pandemic, obviously. I don’t think anybody had. Still, we could use some of those practice exercises to help us figure out what we needed to do in the short term, and then we could start thinking about what business operations will look like while we’re closed, and then—as soon as the county gives us the green light—how we can find a way to open back up again in a safe fashion for our guests and our staff.”

Unfortunately, one of The Living Desert’s first actions was laying off about two-thirds of the park’s workforce, mostly guest-services personnel.

“That allowed us to focus in on our core team of people who are integral in our animal-care departments and business operations,” Monroe said. “We’re like many businesses in a similar situation to us, but they can close their doors and turn off the lights. They may still have to pay rent and such, but (they don’t have) a large operational expense”—namely, taking care of the resident animal population and more than 1,200 acres of park grounds.

Fortunately, The Living Desert made preparations for the worst.

“The good news is that, over the last number of years, we’ve been able to develop an endowment fund that helps support The Living Desert,” Monroe said. “So we have relatively strong cash reserves that would get us through the next months and up to a year if we have to. That’s if we stay with just our current core team of staff people who are necessary for us to take care of the plants and the animals and the mechanical systems here in the park.

“We’ve got months and months of supplies on hand now—and even (planning for) a worst-case scenario, we’ve already started planting some lettuce. We have a horticultural department here, and we feed out lettuce as a treat to some of our animals. Our giraffes are really fond of lettuce. Also, we’ve got a large walk-in freezer that’s stacked to the brim with the different meat products that we feed to our carnivore animals.

“I used to say that we’ve planned for everything, but this virus has thrown the whole world into a new scenario of what’s possible. I think, though, that we’re in good shape.”

What most concerns Monroe during this period of wait-and-see?

“It’s making sure that we can provide a safe environment for our guests when they return,” Monroe said. “We have a COVID-19 preparedness plan that we’ve been putting in place. It specifies all the new standards for how we’re going to operate a business that (traditionally) encourages people to gather—whether it’s acrylic shields in front of cash registers, or making sure there are adequate cueing areas where people can be far enough away from each other so that they feel safe in coming back to our facility.”

While visitor-safety concerns will be crucial when the zoo reopens, comfort and convenience will be important considerations as well. For example, Monroe said The Living Desert is working on plans to move away from multi-car trams in favor of smaller vehicles that hold just one family.

“This way, guests who need an assist in moving around the park will still have an option, and by keeping it to one family, they’ll get an opportunity to see the park while not being exposed to other people unnecessarily.”

What about the educational experiences that have long been featured aspects of The Living Desert?

“We have been talking about modifying some aspects of our park. … In the past, we’ve had a Wildlife Wonder Show that we do in an amphitheater that has a capacity of about 300 people sitting shoulder to shoulder. It now seems likely that will not be the kind of event that is conducive to good health, at least for the immediate future. So we’re talking about ways to integrate spacing into that, or potentially just closing that aspect down for a while. Instead, we can just let people enjoy other parts of the park. We’ve got these great botanical gardens that have lots of really nice trails, and opportunities to walk through different desert habitats. That will be a chance for people to get back outside, get a little exercise and re-connect with nature in a safe fashion.”

Until that reopening day comes—hopefully sooner rather than later—Monroe recommends people visit the zoo’s social-media outlets. While people enjoy the original video and photo content—like the entertaining weekly update videos created by Animal Care Director RoxAnna Breitigan—they can help support the park by creating a fundraiser to support the park’s operations. According to the zoo’s Facebook page, in the month of April, some 16 fundraisers had been initiated, raising more than $10,000.

“When we were forced to shut down,” Monroe said, “we established a fundraising campaign called Mission—Animal Care. Now our supporters can, through a variety of different mechanisms, help us with just a few dollars or sometimes with thousands of dollars towards the care and support of the animals. One of the things that’s been really heartwarming is that, in sort of a spontaneous fashion, dozens and dozens of people who, instead of getting presents for their birthdays, have (done Facebook fundraisers) to have their friends give $10 to $15 that goes into a pot that then helps us provide our educational and conservation programming, as well as take care of our animals. Also, there are often comments made by the people who make donations, and they tell us what an important part of their lives (The Living Desert has been), because they came here with their parents, and now they have kids of their own. It’s nice to see that kind of multi-generational connection that we’ve been able to provide and that generates wonderful memories.”

Meanwhile, Monroe and his team are working toward the day the zoo can reopen.

“The good news about The Living Desert is that, obviously, it’s an outdoor facility, and we’ve got a great deal of room for social distancing,” he said. “It’s not like people are in a movie theater sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with somebody. So I think the nature of the product that we offer our guests will be of interest to them, and they’ll feel relatively safe going back out, once they get the green light from the governor. What we don’t know is how deep will the recession be. What amount of discretionary income might people have? But we’re prepared to staff back up as a number of guests come rolling back in, and hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll get back up to what the attendance numbers were prior to when the COVID-19 virus hit.

“The big question is: How long will we be shut down? And when will we be able to re-open and start generating revenue again? Those are the main questions that all the businesses in the Coachella Valley are asking themselves.”

For more information, visit www.livingdesert.org or www.facebook.com/TheLivingDesert.

Dr. Raul Ruiz is entering the final six months of his fourth term in the U.S. Congress (and running for a fifth term), and much to his own surprise, the medical doctor who spent years working in emergency rooms finds himself in a new role—as a widely sought-after expert.

When nationwide social-distancing guidelines were announced back March, the U.S. House of Representatives was forced to stop meeting in person, so many representatives, including Ruiz, returned to their districts.

“It was hard to find consistency, clarity and credibility here when I got (back) from D.C.,” Ruiz said during a recent phone interview. “I really took it upon myself—given my medical and public-health/disaster-response training and background—to make myself available and to keep this (discussion) in line with a very data- and fact-based scientific approach. I try to answer questions as honestly and transparently as I can. I admit what I don’t know, or what science doesn’t know, and (try) to create a sense of social responsibility, of loving your neighbor—to really help people understand the big picture and see the forest. Then, they can make better decisions when they have to choose amongst the trees.”

The public is confronted daily with numerous and often conflicting messages related to the COVID-19 pandemic—from the often confusing positions declared by President Trump, to the more-considered policies and analyses of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, both which run in contrast to the policy proclamations of Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer, or the more erudite views of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

When the Independent spoke to Ruiz on April 21, we had to ask: Where does the Coachella Valley stand regarding the pandemic?

“This is what I know for a fact: This virus is not going away,” Ruiz said. “People will still be carriers of this virus, even if they’re asymptomatic and feel perfectly fine. And in the absence of massive testing, we don’t know truly how many people are carriers in our communities. Therefore, it will depend on how the community practices social distancing and the (other) precautions to determine whether we see an outbreak, and another rapid rise in coronavirus transmissions. So we are not out of the woods until we have two things. One is a vaccine. That’s the definitive preventative measure that will help us get back to a pre-coronavirus state of normalcy. But in the absence of a vaccine, the second objective would be to have the safeguards in place to prevent another outbreak and surge that could put us over our hospital capacity to handle the amount of coronavirus cases.

“In a nutshell, the safeguards required are having what it takes to help our first responders save lives and protect their own. Secondly, we need the capacity to quickly identify new cases, to isolate them through quarantining, (to do) sufficient contact tracing—and, basically, contain the virus.”

Large-scale, accurate testing is key to beginning the return to relative normalcy.

“Currently, Riverside County has tested about 1-2 percent of the total population—but we need 30-40 percent of the population to be able to get tested readily,” Ruiz said. “I’m talking about testing through primary-care doctors. I’m talking about testing in businesses, testing at food pantries and food banks, testing in the schools. We need massive drive-through testing, where people can get screened and tested even if they don’t have the symptoms. That will give us a better picture of the prevalence of the coronavirus in a community, and also it will help us quickly identify people who are infected—who we hadn’t known about before—in order to do contact tracing, isolate them and quarantine others who may be at a high-risk.

“At this point, I don’t believe we have the system in place to do that. People can come up with plans (to re-open), but having an idea written on paper is different from having the actual personnel, the training, the equipment and the resources needed to implement any such plan.”

How did we, as a nation, arrive at this juncture in the battle against the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918? And can a massive testing effort, such as the one Ruiz described, come to fruition?

“It does require federal support, and this is one of the biggest failures of the response by the federal government,” Ruiz said. “This pandemic was not taken seriously enough in the months of January and February, and that’s precisely when a full and comprehensive use of the Defense Production Act should have been implemented in order to plan the production of the needed tests, PPEs (personal protective equipment) and ventilators required to handle the surge—and we (as a nation) are still behind. In California, where we have the fifth-largest economy in the world, we have enormous purchasing power to create a statewide plan to augment testing. I believe the governor is focused on a statewide plan now, given the lack of movement from the (federal) administration.”

Ruiz said the federal government, if it so chooses, could still initiate a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to bringing the virus’ spread under control—and thus create a clear, safe path toward reopening our country. In fact, Ruiz has a three-point plan of his own.

“It’s not too late for the president to fully utilize the Defense Production Act,” Ruiz said. “What does that look like? The president assigns multiple companies, in multiple industries, to produce not only the PPE, the tests and the ventilators, but also all of the ingredients that go into each of those, in a targeted amount and by a certain date. The federal government guarantees that it will cover the cost of purchasing (the finished) products and of distributing them. Also, it will help with any capacity expansion or modification that those manufacturers need, and even help provide the labor pool needed to get it done. I would use the CEOs of those companies to form a rapid-response task force to problem-solve the nuances of the supply chain logistics in real time.”

“The second thing the administration should do is create a federal-command coordinating mechanism that’s regionally based, has a very clear chain of command, and can strategically produce, deliver and re-stock these materials in different hospitals.”

Ruiz explained how this command structure could effectively free hospital administrators and local-government officials from the stress of searching the world for supplies, as well as eliminate price-gouging, plus hoarding by concerned state administrations.

“The third aspect of this plan that I’ve sent over to the administration—and made a lot of noise about—is that we need transparency,” Ruiz said. “Currently, we cannot clearly plot who’s responsible for what in the supply chain. We don’t know what real role Jared Kushner has, or what real role the vice president has, or what real role Admiral (John) Polowczyk has. This (creates) a dilemma for people who want to trust and augment the system when the chain of command is so vague.

“I say it’s not too late, because we won’t have a vaccine for at least another year. So we’ll need to practice precautions for another year. I would love to have all non-essential businesses open with social-distancing precautions, but to do that, and safely avoid another massive surge that puts us back to stay-at-home orders, we need massive testing, and a massive amount of PPEs.”

Of course, 2020 is an election year—and traditional voting may not be safe during a pandemic. Oh, and the United States Postal Service is on thin financial ice. Both of these related topics have been the subject of much recent bickering in Washington, D.C.

“I’m in support of a vote-by-mail program,” Ruiz said, “because that’s the best way to practice our patriotic and civil voting responsibility while keeping our citizens safe during these elections. Democrats (in Congress) proposed funding for the post office during the CARES Act, but the Senate Republicans refused and said it was, basically, a non-starter. But I know that it will continue to be an advocacy on the part of House Democrats and Senate Democrats, because we believe that everybody who can vote, should vote, responsibly and in the safest way possible. Forcing individuals to stand out in the cold (at polling places) without enabling proper protections and precautions is putting them intentionally in harm’s way, when you know that there is an easy way to vote safely from home.”

The U.S. Postal Service could also play a key role in any at-home testing programs that get developed in the coming months. Ruiz said he and his fellow Democrats would continue to fight to save the Postal Service—but there’s only so much they can do.

“I’m confident that we’re going to include USPS support in a Democratic House bill,” Ruiz said. “Whether or not the Senate will vote for it, or whether or not the president will veto a plan that allows every citizen to vote safely by mail—I cannot guarantee that.”

While COVID-19 is obviously the world’s biggest current health challenge, people still have other health problems that need to be addressed in a timely fashion—and if you happen to be a low-income, uninsured resident of the Coachella Valley, one of the few options for good, quality care is Indio’s Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine clinic.

According to the clinic’s website: “CVVIM is a member of Volunteers in Medicine, a national nonprofit alliance with more than 90 free clinics across the U.S., whose mission is to provide healthcare services in a compassionate, caring way to our neighbors in need.” The Indio clinic opened its doors in November 2010, and is the valley’s only free health center.

However, CVVIM is not set up to directly treat COVID-19 patients like the local hospitals and the Desert AIDS Project are.

“LabCorp, our lab-service provider, (won’t) process the (COVID-19) tests from us, because they are saving the tests for the people who are needing them the most, and an ambulatory clinic (like CVVIM) that doesn’t normally see very ill patients wouldn’t qualify,” said Dr. Stewart Fleishman, a volunteer physician and the board chair at CVVIM. “So we send people to the appropriate test sites.”

The clinic’s operations have been severely impacted by the ramifications of the virus’ spread. The shelter-at-home restrictions and the threat of exposure to the coronavirus have greatly impacted the daily operations at CVVIM. In fact, the clinic stopped allowing in-person visits on March 19, when Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order took effect. Since then, the clinic has been communicating, diagnosing and refilling prescriptions for patients through virtual and telephonic channels every Tuesday through Friday.

“We only have a few paid staff members, and they’re all coming in,” Fleishman said. “Our volunteers are almost all over 65; maybe 75 percent of us are over 65, so it would have been very tough to ask them to come in. The rest of our volunteers are trainees from Eisenhower Medical Center, from the internal-medicine and family-practice-training programs, but they’ve been needed at the hospital. So we’ve had to change things around.

“We have medical technicians coming in, and they’re fielding all the phone calls and the faxes. They’re calling each of the providers with questions about drug (prescription) renewals, transportation, or X-ray or scan results, and then we call the patients back and give them the information. We answer any patient questions and make sure they’re OK. It’s a bit cumbersome. I am the main bilingual provider, believe it or not, with a name like Fleishman. I can operate on my own, but (the technicians) are here to help all the other providers make phone calls (to patients), because they need to have a conference call with a translator.”

Fleishman said he believes the clinic is continuing to serve its patients well, given the circumstances.

“For what we’re doing now, we have Doug (Morin), the executive director; an operations manager; a front-desk coordinator; a diabetes nurse; a med tech; and a volunteer coordinator. So, we have six people. We spread them out so that they’re not all in the same little area at the same time. We’ve really kept all of those folks employed, because we feel that’s a commitment that we want to make to them—and we need them to be the middlemen amongst all of these services and patients.”

Fleishman said many of CVVIM’s patients, in normal times, are working—but uninsured.

“Many have jobs, although some don’t have jobs now,” he said. “Luckily, most of the patients do have access to a cell phone. Since the government relaxed the rules on privacy and confidentiality, we’ve been using FaceTime and Skype to do telehealth visits. We’re not (yet using) a regular telehealth platform, (which hopefully soon) we should be getting from the national Volunteers in Medicine board.”

The one exception to the strict “no patient contact” policy: CVVIM’s Indio-based Street Medicine Team, to which one member of the clinic’s personnel is attached one night per week.

“They’ve been getting to some of the homeless people who were not being serviced by the (Coachella Valley Rescue) Mission or one of the other wonderful programs all over this valley,” Fleishman said. “These are folks living under overpasses and in small encampments. (The team) goes out on Tuesday nights with an Indio police officer, somebody from the Narrow Door (an Indio service organization) and some food. So, there’s food, clothing and medical care (being offered) to the homeless. They skipped two weeks, but they’ve started going out again.

“It’s a sad situation, but there are people congregating in small groups all over the place. Many of them have insurance—many of them have Medi-Cal, but they don’t trust the system. They feel that the system has wronged them. So, if they came to our office, by our usual rules, we wouldn’t see them, because they have insurance. But if they encounter the Street Medicine Team, then we can. Right now, a smaller team is going out, because the medical assistants are mostly needed at the Eisenhower hospital. Because the police officer is from Indio, we don’t cross the city lines into other cities. They see a number of patients every week. People trust them. They know that they’re coming, and they know there will be food and clothing with them.”

Nearly all nonprofits are dealing with financial worries due to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. However, Fleishman expressed limited optimism about the clinic’s future, as well as gratitude for the help that’s already come their way.

“We’ve been lucky in that before we even contacted them to let them know what our plans were, the foundations who have granted us money are being extremely understanding,” Fleishman said. “Our major fundraising event for the year, the VIMY Awards, was to be on March 21, so we’ve had to postpone that until Nov. 13. That’s a big issue.

“We have been trying to communicate that we’re still here to help the patients in the best ways we can based upon the circumstances. For the foreseeable future, yes, we are stable, but I don’t know how to quantify what ‘foreseeable’ is. Our foundations have given us latitude in how we can spend their (grant) money, because some of it was restricted to use for only certain programs. One of our funders did spontaneously send us some extra money, which was unrequested and quite lovely. But we haven’t yet (made requests for additional funding), because we wanted to see what was really happening, and figure out how long we’re going to have to operate like this.

“If we get the telehealth system from the national VIM, then I think we’ll be in a lot better shape.”

For more information on Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, visit cvvim.org.

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