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The omicron effect: What happens when city halls and state agencies close their doors?

Hampered by worker illnesses and pandemic restrictions, government offices are getting creative.

CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters.

While there’s no good time for a town to be hit by a worldwide pandemic and successive waves of highly-contagious variants, Eastvale in Riverside County has been cruelly hammered at just the wrong moment.

On the cusp of new commercial development, when Eastvale sought to attract business to its modest main street, omicron threw a smothering blanket over the city’s bureaucracy. In the state’s second-youngest city, encouraging growth is a high priority. That means streamlining the creaky and byzantine civic process of approving permits, scheduling inspections and issuing business licenses. 

But best intentions have had no chance against omicron, which has decimated the statewide government workforce that collects garbage, keeps libraries open and authorizes construction of homes and businesses.

Maintaining Eastvale’s permitting pipeline is essential, Mayor Clint Lorimore said, but so far the city can’t keep up. Obtaining a building permit now takes more than twice as long as it did pre-COVID-19. “Omicron has absolutely impacted our timelines in terms of permit issuance,” he said.

Up and down California, city halls and other government offices are closed to the public or have reduced their hours as authorities scramble to keep a vast bureaucracy working while those who do the work are home sick.

“Everybody is handling it differently,” said Lorimore, who is also the president of the Southern California Association of Governments. “It’s certainly been challenging.”

State, county and city officials have been operating on an ever-changing landscape where public health concerns sometimes trump the smooth running of government. Sacramento County health officials — as well as other jurisdictions — have ordered the suspension of in-person public meetings, which means state boards and other agencies and organizations are holding online meetings.  

But as face-to-face interactions give way to reliance on computer literacy to navigate government services, problems arise about reaching disadvantaged people — those without a computer or internet access, fluency in English or disabilities that make it difficult to function online.

State agencies say they are affected by omicron, but still working. State parks are open for visitation, for example.

Even the much-criticized Department of Motor Vehicles says it hasn’t missed a beat — only one of the state’s nearly 200 DMV offices had to close because of staffing shortages, and that was only for one day.

Wait times at some DMV offices have increased, said Anita Gore, the DMV’s deputy director of communications, but the average wait time statewide for customers without appointments has improved: Last week the average wait was 22 minutes, she said. That’s two minutes longer than in December 2020, but 17 minutes faster than in December 2019, before the pandemic, according to the DMV’s annual report to the state legislature

Many cities have moved to online service or in-person, appointment-only visits. In San Jose, libraries no longer offer indoor reading programs and other events, although patrons may enter to borrow books. 

Many cities, however, have maintained essential services such as garbage collection, which often rely on outside contractors. But Long Beach warned residents that because of high numbers of omicron cases among workers, they could experience delays in a host of services, including trash pickup, street sweeping and pothole repair. 

Los Angeles’ Planning Department, which said it has a staff vacancy rate of nearly 20%, is trying to streamline affordable housing projects, which are a key issue for the city and a priority for Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

In Los Angeles’ effort to avoid delays in construction permits, contractors may now drop off hard copies of plans in boxes outside the planning department, and the city has set up an online system of reviewing them.

Huntington Beach has closed its city hall since the first week of January, when “a significant number of our employees came back (from Christmas holidays) with positive test results,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Carey. “We want to eliminate the potential for contact.”

The city now offers drop boxes for residents to pay fees and fines. “There are lots of tools and policies put in place for the pandemic that we are using now, and it’s ended up working out for the better. It showed cities a potentially better way of management,” Carey said. 

For instance, the city adopted an online system that allows customers seeking permits for a variety of projects and activities to track the status of their paperwork. Applicants can see “up-to-the-second status updates from every department, upload and download documents and plans electronically, and obtain contact information for questions on their project for every department,” according to Huntington Beach’s Permitting Services department.

Eastvale is hoping that the workforce disruption doesn’t deter future development. The city of 73,000, which was incorporated in 2010, bills itself as the front door of the Inland Empire, a region bulging with warehouses and online fulfillment centers. Eastvale is home to a one-million-square-foot Amazon warehouse, and the town’s first hotel is currently under construction.

Processing a construction permit in Eastvale took on average 12 days in 2019, but last year it swelled to 31 days, according to the city’s most recent data. The processing delays have been compounded by a 17% increase in requests for home improvement permits, business licenses and other city approvals.

Peter Tateishi, chief executive officer of Associated General Contractors of California, said it’s too early to tell if omicron has gummed up complex permitting machinery.

Some code enforcement and inspections have gone virtual, which he said adds efficiency and, in some cases, speed, to the complicated process. “We have heard that some of the online shifts (for building permits) have been great,” Tateishi said.

With builders using smartphone cameras on-site, inspectors can work from an office and view several worksites in the time it may have taken to drive to only a few sites. “They can see things in real-time,” he said.

The emphasis on a digital world, however, is likely to leave many people behind. Ventura County Supervisor Carmen Ramirez said officials have had to work hard to reach out to poor or minority residents who may miss out on grants or other assistance.

“Not everybody has a computer, and even if they do, if they don’t speak English, it can be difficult,” Ramirez said. “There has to be attention to people who don’t have broadband or internet access. We need services that are bilingual and helpful to people who are sight and hearing impaired.”

Ramirez, who has two of her four staffers out with omicron, said even with obstacles posed by the virus, the government still has to do its job. “If you are going to be serving people with our tax dollars, you’ve got to serve people,” she said.

The digital divide is also a concern for Lorimore in Eastvale, where 79% of the population is people of color. Omicron’s impacts are exposing the inequities of how government reaches those it serves, he said.  And they also expose how cities are all being hit hard, regardless of their size or affluence.

“Everyone’s in the same boat,” Lorimore said. The Eastvale city offices — located in a storefront in a strip mall — are closed in the same way that grand city halls around California are shuttered.  

Still, during these challenging times, other jurisdictions might take heart from Eastvale’s modest unofficial city slogan: “Some days we win, some days we learn, and yet we are always trying.”

Watch More: What will the new paid sick leave policy mean for workers in Sacramento?