As we are nearing two months of isolation from the coronavirus, it seemed to be a good time to provide an update on County efforts to fight the virus. My highest priority is to help the County become more effective in saving lives, protecting health, and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the county. My second priority is helping businesses and social/recreational activities safely reopen. My third priority is dealing with the impacts of the crisis on county finances.
County Focuses on High Risk Populations
The county is focusing on preventing and containing the spread of coronavirus in high risk congregate settings, including primarily nursing homes, senior centers, developmental disability centers, group homes, jails and detention centers, and the homeless population. As the economy starts to reopen we will also have to focus on large manufacturing facilities.
We are working in each of these settings to facilitate greater social distancing and to provide protective equipment and sanitizer. Through collaboration among the judges, County Prosecutor, County Defender, and County Sheriff, we have been able to reduce the population in the County jail by almost half, from about 1900 to about 1000, particularly by releasing people to remain at home while awaiting trial. This has allowed us to properly isolate inmates and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed.
We are doing testing, contact tracing, and isolation with all of these congregate settings as cases of COVID-19 arise. The County recently found an additional source of testing materials and is purchasing $5 million worth of testing equipment which will allow us to do more testing with these high risk populations. This should particularly help with the homeless population, where we are currently doing primarily medical screening, rather than actual testing, which is a weakness in our current program.
The average number of new cases and new fatalities per day appears to have leveled off in Cuyahoga County at this time; however, we are not yet in a clear downtrend, and as the economy starts to reopen, the risk of a return to higher coronavirus activity remains high.
County Starts to Re-open for Business
Following Governor DeWine’s direction, the County is gradually starting to reopen for business. His plan allowed elective medical procedures not requiring an overnight stay and dental services to reopen on May 1. General offices, distribution facilities, and manufacturing resumed on May 4, and they will be followed by most retail business on May 12th. Hair salons and other personal care services will be allowed to reopen on May 15th. Restaurants and bars will be allowed to reopen for outdoor service on May 15th and indoor service on May 21st. Schools, day care centers, indoor theatres, gyms, and any large public events remain closed. Facilities that reopen are required to follow strict social distancing and sanitizing procedures. Wearing masks is required for all employees, with a few exceptions where impractical, and is strongly recommended for customers.
Since the coronavirus remains prevalent in Ohio and Cuyahoga County, both in terms of new cases and fatalities, I believe the reopening is probably a little too early. However, much more important than debating the exact timing of re-opening is emphasizing how important it is for everyone to be very diligent about coronavirus safety as they start to become more socially and economically active. The most important safety measure is social distancing—staying at least six feet apart from other people, followed by wearing masks, frequent and thorough hand-washing, not touching one’s face, and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces.
I do strongly recommend wearing a mask, whenever one may come in contact with other people, but it is important to remember that wearing a mask does not replace social distancing.
The best protection is to practice strict social distancing and to also weak a mask to obtain some additional protection when close contact could not be avoided. In addition to providing some additional self-protection, wearing a mask is even more important to prevent spread of COVID-19 to others. For me, the principle that rises above all others, is to do everything possible to protect both myself and others from COVID-19. Even people who are young and strong and unlikely to become seriously ill can easily spread COVID-19 to family members, friends, and people they don’t even know who may become seriously ill or die from it. We all must pay as much or more attention to making sure we don’t spread it to others as we do protecting ourselves.
As we start to reopen and have more choices about social, recreational, and economic activities, I strongly recommend that everyone be very selective about what activities they participate in. This is especially true for those at risk, which are people over 65 and people with other medical problems, but it applies to everyone because of the risk of infecting others. It appears that the likelihood of getting infected depends on the viral load, that is, the amount and severity of exposure. If you are exposed to one or a few passing contacts with infected persons, you may be able to fight it off, but if exposed in a more sustained way or in multiple events on the same day, you probably won’t be so lucky. So just because you are now allowed to go to a restaurant or a birthday party doesn’t mean you should. Everyone should work hard at being able to do the things they have to do and some things they desire to do while at the same time effectively keeping potential exposure to an absolute minimum.
I am currently focusing on helping ensure that the County has a complete, well-connected program of testing, contact tracing, and isolation in place. This is especially important as the county starts to reopen for business and social activity. All three elements must be available and operating in coordination with each other for us to be successful in preventing spread of COVID-19.
County Providing Assistance to Local Businesses
The County is also very active in assisting local business to get through the economic aspects of the crisis. The County has opened up a Small Business Resource Center to help small businesses access available assistance. The Resource Center is available at 216-452-9714 on Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 5 AM.
The County is helping small businesses get through the crisis in two ways. The first is to help them access state and federal assistance, especially the two main federal programs specifically responding to the crisis, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL), which both offer grants as well as loans.
The second is that the County, in partnership with the Economic Community Development Institute (ECDI), Jump Start, and the Cleveland Foundation is running its own program, making stabilization grants of $2,500 to $5,000 to small businesses to help them get through the crisis and stay in business. In the first round, the County made grants of $2,500 each to 200 businesses. Applications for the second round are now being received and will be taken through May 15th at 5 PM. The application is brief and can be completed within a few minutes. The program is targeted for the smallest business, those with 25 employees or less, many of which may not be able to access the federal programs.
County’s Role in Helping People Get through the Economic and Social Crisis
Besides our efforts at preventing the spread of coronavirus, the County is also heavily involved in helping people get through the economic and social aspects of the crisis. One very significant area is that our office of Jobs and Family Services helps people navigate the unemployment application process. I have been able to help some constituents get through this process and get their benefits and will continue to do so. The County’s mental health and addiction programs and child welfare services are also very important in helping people cope with the additional stress produced by the COVID-19 crisis.
County Financial Impacts
Our primary focus is on saving lives and keeping people healthy, and our secondary focus is on helping businesses and people survive the economic impacts of the crisis; however, the crisis will also have a severe impact on the County’s finances. Sales tax revenue, which will decline steeply during the crisis, accounts for about 60% of the County’s General Fund revenue. As Chairman of the County’s Finance & Budgeting Committee, dealing with the financial impacts will be an important responsibility for me. We are starting to gather information on the impact and prepare a response. My primary goals are to get us through the crisis while maintaining basic services, avoiding layoffs, and not raising taxes. Whether we can accomplish that goal will depend extensively on the nature of federal assistance. If the Federal Government increases flexibility and allows us to use some of their assistance to replace lost revenue, we will be able to avoid the most severe consequences. If they do not, we will have a much more difficult time. The County received $215 million in federal assistance but under current restrictions, we will not be able to use most of it. We and state and local governments across the country are lobbying hard for more flexibility. Stay tuned.
While I am working from home so that I do not get or spread COVID-19, I am ready and willing to help any of my constituents. Please contact me at email@example.com or 216-252-7827 if I can help.