Coronavirus Updates, March 16, 2020: School’s Out, Bars Close, County Orders ‘Shelter in Place’

Scroll from the bottom up to read in chronological order. And click here to catch up on the rest of our coronavirus coverage. 

9:53pm: Buying time.

San Jose banned evictions for the next month and the state of California followed suit some days later. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom is allowing cities to extend the same protection to commercial tenants. To read the executive order in full, click here.

9:27pm: Shopping spree.

People need to chill the heck out.

Doomsday prepping has officially gone mainstream.

At least it sure seems that way. And it shows little sign of subsiding.

The panic-buying only intensified after word got out about the seven-county shelter-in-place edict. People at the Milpitas Safeway on Calaveras paid no heed to social-distancing mandates—most stood barely a foot apart from each other while lining up to check out.

Meanwhile, the picture above is what Grocery Outlet across from San Jose City Hall looked like after frenzied shoppers picked the shelves clean.

—Jennifer Wadsworth

8:50pm: Disaster loans.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will try to open the spigot of loans to help small companies weather the pandemic-related shutdowns.

The money isn’t quite there yet, though.

Federal lawmakers are trying to figure out how to enable the SBA to lend as much as $50 billion to small businesses reeling from the economy grinding to a halt. The SBA has never dealt with working with lenders to issue disaster relief loans at this scale.

According to a Congressional review of the SBA’s disaster-relief loan program from 2000 to 2015, 83 percent of lending through the agency went to individuals for property damage caused by extreme weather. Just 11 percent went to businesses and 6 percent to “economic injury disaster loans” as opposed to property damage.

From 2005 to 2015, the SBA dealt with $4 billion in disaster loans. That’s 8 percent of what legislators are now asking for to save small businesses from ruin.

In its latest flash report, the city of San Jose assured that its Office of Economic Development is working with Santa Clara County to “expedite the process” of securing financing and will post updates when they make some headway.

Click here to find an application, go to Businessownerspace.com for help preparing the paperwork and check out the city’s FAQ on the program right here.

—Jennifer Wadsworth

6:33 pm: Out sick.

The city of Santa Clara announced that one of its police officers tested positive for COVID-19. The SCPD cop last worked March 9 and is self-isolating for the next two weeks. He’s expected to make a full recovery and the department is reaching out to people who may have come in contact with him.

—Grace Hase

6:11pm: More lives lost.

Santa Clara County just announced two more COVID-19 fatalities, bringing the local death toll to four. One was an 80-year-old man who was hospitalized on March 7. The other, a 50-year-old man hospitalized on March 12. Both died on Sunday.

News of the deaths came as officials reported an uptick of 24 new cases since Sunday—the biggest 24-hour jump since confirming the first incidence on Jan. 31.

5:54pm: Homeward bound.

Despite public advisories about the health benefit of working from home and a directive from Facebook for staff to telecommute if at all possible, nearly a hundred  hourly contractors for the social media giant had been forced to show up to a local office anyway.

Employees of a Facebook subcontractor called Accenture said their bosses said they could only go home if they tested positive for the coronavirus. That standard, unfortunately, ignored how asymptomatic hosts contribute to the exponential spread of the virus and how a paucity of testing makes diagnosis difficult to come by.

Instead, employees had to stick around, sanitize their desks with Windex and sit at least a workspace apart in an effort to impose social distancing.

The folks who stayed behind resented having to choose between their health and their job and took to social media to voice their complaints.

Those concerns fell on deaf ears—until today.

It took the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place decree for Accenture to finally send home scores of employees who censor some of the most traumatizing content on Facebook.

One of the 80 or so who left the Mountain View office today (and asked to remain anonymous) said he felt “relieved and thankful that” Santa Clara County took these measures “yet also grateful that [Accenture] let us go home with pay.”

“Glad they came to their senses,” he said, “and followed the order, too.”

—Jennifer Wadsworth

3:47pm: Tapped out.

San Jose Water Company (SJW)—the investor-owned utility that provides drinking water to most of the South Bay—has closed its office to customers and told employees to work remotely for the time being. The company also suspended service shutoffs for non-payment and canceled all non-essential in-home service appointments.

SJW President Andy Gere assured customers that the drinking water supply is safe from COVID-19, according to a World Health Organization report.

“Our priority is to keep everyone safe while continuing to deliver safe and reliable drinking water,” he said. “San Jose Water has well established emergency contingency and business continuity plans that anticipate and address extraordinary situations such as COVID-19. We can deliver uninterrupted service while protecting the health and safety of our employees, customers, and the community.”

2:35pm: Stay inside, folks.

We’ve reached a tipping point.

That’s how Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody justified the shelter-in-place mandate going into effect at midnight.

Existing measures have so far failed to stop the exponential spread of the pandemic, while a lack of tests prevents authorities from accurately mapping its full extent. So, to flatten the curve and save hospitals from an overwhelming influx of coronavirus-sickened patients, seven Bay Area counties with a combined population of 6.7 million are telling as many people as possible to stay home.

“Because even people without symptoms can transmit the disease, and because evidence shows the disease is easily spread, gatherings can result in preventable transmission of the virus,” the order explains. “The scientific evidence shows that at this stage of the emergency, it is essential to slow virus transmission as much as possible to protect the most vulnerable and to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.”

The legal directive (which you can find here on the county website) limits activity, travel and business to only the most essential needs until midnight on April 7.

“I recognize that this is unprecedented,” Dr. Cody said at a press conference today. “And if I thought last Friday’s announcement [restricting crowds of 35 or more] was hard, this one is exponentially harder. But we must come together to do this.”

With 138 of the Bay Area’s 273 COVID-19 cases and three of its deaths, per the latest tally, Santa Clara County marks the epicenter of the regional outbreak.

The ban—the strictest in the country and which police can enforce with misdemeanor citations—forbids all gatherings and inessential travel. People can drive or take public transit if they’re going to pick up necessities, stay outdoors, care for family members and pets or visit a health professional. Core government services and businesses such as grocers, pharmacies, restaurants for to-go orders and hardware stores can remain open.

Cody urged vital businesses to stay up and running as long as they enact social distancing, keeping patrons at least six feet apart from one another. “We all must do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that our essential services remain intact and open,” Dr. Cody said, “especially our hospitals and health facilities.”

That doesn’t mean we have to stay inside all the time. We can still go on hikes, dog walks or runs as long as we go alone or with family and house-mates and maintain enough physical distance from everyone else.

“The time for half measures is over,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told reporters today, “and history will not forgive us for waiting an hour more.”

Liccardo cautioned that it would take more time to work out all the details and figure out how to get food to the people who need it. But he said he’s reached out to Door Dash and that Second Harvest of Silicon Valley will ensure that homebound seniors and medically vulnerable people get the meals they need.

“Social distancing does not mean isolation,” the mayor said. “We can continue to be a community. We’re going to need to care for each other to get through this together.”

More announcements are expected in the days to come as officials ramp up testing and nail down more specifics about how to meet everyone’s needs during the shutdown. As of now, Dr. Cody said the region’s testing capacity is unknown but expanding as the commercial and academic sectors step up—including Stanford University, which began offering appointment-only drive-through tests on Sunday.

Scott Morrow—Dr. Cody’s counterpart in San Mateo County—said the new rules, which are expected to last a few weeks, will literally save lives.

“We are in a rough place,” he acknowledged, “and we are going to have difficult times ahead of us. The measures that we are putting in place are temporary, but they will last longer than any of us want. This is the time to unite as a community, come to each other’s aid and dig really deep. Find your best inner self and pull out all the compassion and gratitude and kindness you can.”

Liccardo echoed the sentiment. “This is our generation’s great test,” he said. “We need to work together to conquer this virus.”

—Jennifer Wadsworth

1pm: Streaming live.

Happening now: that highly anticipated shelter-in-place presser.

12:56pm: Patent pending.

In response to what it calls the “extraordinary situation” of the pandemic, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will waive petition fees in certain situations for customers impacted by the coronavirus. It will not grant waivers or extensions of dates, however. To read the official notice, click here.

12:46pm: Posthaste.

The U.S. Postal Service will close all offices until further notice to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. Unless otherwise notified, services will otherwise continue “without interruption,” according to an announcement from USPS today.

Patent and trademark application deadlines will not be extended. And offices will remain open only for employees, contractors and those with access badges.

Those with official business with the USPS should reach out through the agency’s website. For more information on the coronavirus, click here.

12:30pm: All quiet on the downtown front.

12:20pm: Hunker down.

Roads normally choked with traffic are eerily empty. Shopping malls have become ghost towns. The light rail runs one-car trains. Schools that would have been welcoming hundreds of thousands of kids today are quiet—and will be until at least next month.

Life in Silicon Valley—which claims one of the highest concentrations of positive COVID-19 tests in the United States and the most of any part of California—has changed dramatically. And still it continues to shift, seemingly by the minute.

By Sunday—when Gov. Gavin Newsom told people over 65 to stay home and urged bars, wineries and nightclubs to shut down—Santa Clara County Public Health Office Dr. Sara Cody confirmed 114 cases of COVID-19. Fifty-two of them couldn’t be traced to overseas travel or another infected person. Forty-eight are hospitalized. Two died.

An updated count has yet to be posted online today as seven Bay Area counties prepare for a 1pm press conference to announce a shelter-in-place order for all residents.

Though it’s not a complete lockdown and excludes homeless people, the order allows law enforcement to “ensure compliance.”

“The scientific evidence shows that at this stage of the emergency, it is essential to slow virus transmission as much as possible to protect the most vulnerable and to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed,” the order reads. “One proven way to slow the transmission is to limit interactions among people to the greatest extent practicable.”

With tests hard to come by, it’s impossible to know the extent of the outbreak, which has topped 4,000 confirmed cases nationwide. While South Korea managed to test 250,000 people and managed to avoid the kinds of extreme lockdown measures seen in other countries, the U.S. has diagnosed a little over 10,000.

In the face of uncertainty and to avoid the situation now plaguing Italy, authorities here say Americans have little choice but to hunker down to slow COVID-19’s inexorable spread and prevent overwhelmed hospitals. Yes, even in Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world, the healthcare system is grappling with how to meet basics needs—enough beds, staff and equipment—if the virus continues apace.

At a Board of Supervisors hearing last week, County Supervisor Jeff Smith said the county’s nine hospitals can handle 2,000 patients. “If we have 5,000, 6,000,” he said, “then we’re in deep trouble and we have a regional need.”

More concerning is the dearth of doctors and nurses. Even if the county found places for thousands more beds, officials say they wouldn’t have enough people to staff them.

Today, the county focused all of its efforts on combatting the spread by shutting down all non-essential services—those that protect the health, safety and welfare of the community. “We’re at a critical moment,” Dr. Cody said in a statement this morning. “We need to act swiftly to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in order to keep our healthcare delivery system from becoming overwhelmed.”

Everyone has a responsibility.

“The paradox,” Cody said, “is this: to come together as a community and protect each other, we need to physically stay apart for a while.”

—Jennifer Wadsworth

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