In a telephone interview with The Malibu Times Tuesday, Malibu’s mayor, Karen Farrer, talked about the city’s response to the COVID-19 emergency, outlining how “this one is different” from the Woolsey Fire that occurred just two days after her election to council in 2018.
One major difference, Farrer said, was the city’s relationship with LA County.
“We’ve been working on coordination with the county and the state since the beginning,” Farrer said—beginning in February, three weeks before LA County announced its Safer at Home order. “The city’s been participating on conference calls on a daily basis with LA County Department of Health,” she later added. “Everyone’s working remotely; nobody’s located physically at City Hall, so everything’s being done as a virtual city hall.”
That coordination effort hasn’t been without its frustrations—the city has yet to receive confirmation as to how many, if any, confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have been found among Malibu residents.
According to Farrer, when the city learned LA County would only release COVID-19 infection data about communities with at least 25,000 residents, “we immediately asked for smaller cities to get reporting.” That was weeks ago.
“I did not get a positive response that they would do that,” she said.
As for testing, Farrer said there was no “large scale ability” to test for the virus in Malibu, a community without a hospital.
Another resource lacking in the city of Malibu is access for homeless people to safe shelter; the city is in the process of developing a potential shelter or safe parking area for local unhoused people, but there is no plan to find emergency shelter for Malibu homeless.
During a meeting on Jan. 29, city council discussed creating a shelter; on Tuesday, Farrer described that as “a long range plan” that was not set to go into effect any time soon, due to issues including asbestos at the proposed site, the LA County Courthouse in the Civic Center.
“Here in Malibu, a lot of adjustments and increases in services have been made,” Farrer said, including hand-washing stations, access to extension cords and free backup batteries for cell phones. LA County leadership, Farrer said, have pledged an additional 2,000 beds will be made available elsewhere in the county. However, there remain no beds available in Malibu.
“I have not had any conversations with anybody about sheltering here in Malibu on a short term, crisis basis,” Farrer said. “Any programs, any facilities that are available in the county are also available to any person in Malibu experiencing homelessness.”
As to questions that have been raised regarding the safety of continuing to allow construction on homes in areas wiped out by Woolsey just over one year ago, Farrer said, “Right now, construction is still considered an essential activity,” though the mayor mentioned it could be up for discussion at council’s next meeting, which will be held virtually on April 13. For now, the city is working to balance the needs of displaced homeowners with rising safety concerns.
“We are doing everything we can to keep fire rebuilds going,” Farrer said. “If the state or county orders change on construction, of course we will comply, but, you know, we’re continuing to offer what are deemed essential services and construction falls in that category. Obviously, anybody working on a construction site, whether they’re indoors or outdoors, needs to be following … social distancing and safety practices.”
On a positive note, Farrer reported a coordinated effort with the city’s Volunteers on Patrol (VOP), CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station has helped to both reduce the number of visitors congregating in Malibu and provide much-needed outreach to elderly and disabled members of the community.
“If anyone is concerned for themselves or anyone else, please let the city know and we will make sure that a wellness check is conducted,” the mayor suggested. “I got confirmation yesterday of just such a thing with an elderly couple nobody had heard from and, the good news is, they’re fine.”
CERT is also providing emergency information in the form of physical newsletters posted at local markets and other high-traffic areas of town, as a supplement to the city’s internet and telephone notices.
When asked what message she would like to share with Malibu residents, Farrer got straight to the point: “I’d say, number one, I urge everybody to take the stay-at-home and social distancing order seriously. I don’t know how much more clear that can be made.”
“We all know that businesses, large and small, are closed, employees are furloughed, applications for unemployment are growing by the day and I just really would like to see us pull together as a community,” she added. “I hope and I expect this community will pull together once the stay-at-home orders and social distancing orders begin to relax and support our local businesses.”
As for Farrer, she said she has spent nearly all her time at home keeping busy with city business, including conference calls, virtual meetings and writing countless emails, but hopes to spend time enjoying the city’s Virtual Recreation Center (malibucity.org/virtualrec) later this week. She hasn’t had much time to unwind—although, she said, “I did make a lemon pudding cake last week because I had a bunch of lemons—that’s about the extent of Martha Stewart activities.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the minimum number of residents a community needs to meet the LA County threshold to release individual COVID-19 test results. The story has been updated to reflect the correct number.