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Still Working, New Demands: Behind the closed doors at City Hall where a lot is going on

The coronavirus pandemic and state health emergency orders have changed the way just about everything is getting done around town and at local businesses.

It's no different at city halls around the desert where elected leaders and city staffers are operating in new and unfamiliar roles.

Palm Springs City Hall is normally a busy place with people coming and going. During the pandemic, a new look-- empty.

And this was a busy day here due to last-minute preparations for a city council meeting.

A few blocks away at the city's maintenance yard, the on-site staff has been cut in two. Employees now working on-site, then a week away at home. It's changed the way they maintain and repair the city's fleet of police, fire, airport, and city staff vehicles.

A Fleet Technician II Greg Sanchez said, "When you start a job and have to leave because of this alternating thing, it does affect it a bit."

Sanchez says that, like everyone else, they're having to find new ways to communicate. "Everything's going through email and phone calls," Sanchez said.

And it's getting harder to find some replacement parts. It's not slowing down repairs, not yet. "If I need, for example, a part for this unit right now," said Sanchez, "it's kind of hard to get right now with the current situation."

Back at City Hall, we're shown emergency stores of food supplies. "These are all dehydrated, so they have a shelf life," said the city's Emergency Management Coordinator, Danny DeSelms.

He says these supplies haven't been needed for the pandemic response. But city workers have utilized emergency stockpiles of personal protective equipment, primarily n95 masks and toilet paper stored in other strategic storage locations.

The city's Emergency Operations Center is empty due to the pandemic and social distancing. But DeSelms says it has been activated since the city declared an emergency on March 14.

The city does have an Emergency Operations Plan, which was created in 2012. Managers at city hall say the thick document is very complete but intended more for a natural disaster such as a major earthquake, fire, or flood.

DeSelms says he's reworking the more than 600-page document to shorten and simplify it. It does reference pandemic with background information and potentialities such as no vaccines available, limited therapies, and too few hospital beds. But it primarily points to the county's health department for response guidance. They're all things we've seen during this pandemic.

"We really haven't had to refer to it because I've been doing emergency management for two decades," DeSelms said, "so a lot of the stuff is second nature."

DeSelms has been crunching and charting the daily coronavirus infection numbers for the city council and staff. He says city efforts to slow it's spread are working well. The mayor agrees.

"We were considered the hot spot," Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors said. "We were ground zero for the whole county at one time in Palm Springs. And now we've had one new case a day," Kors added.

In his office ahead of yet another video conference, the new way of meeting with constituents and other leaders, Kors says city hall is very busy despite its empty appearance.

"A lot of things have gotten pushed off that aren't urgent because of the pandemic," said Kors. " There's so much extra work to do for city staff and for me and the council."

Besides a continued 2020 census outreach reminding people to get counted, a lot of that extra focus has been online with communications to the community. Amy Blaisdell, the city's spokeswoman, is harnessing social media to do it both here at work and at home.

"We can reach them quickly, and when you're in a situation like this, that's key," said Blaisdell who added, "It's kept me busy, and it definitely is unprecedented."

Successes already include allowing residents to comment at city council meetings by phone. Blaisdell said, "I have heard from residents they like being able to phone in their comments rather than coming down to the city council meeting."

When things will return to normal here is anyone's best guess. But Kors says they are acting in the best way they can for residents and businesses alike during these very uncertain times.

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Jeff Stahl

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