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Newsom slams cities for opposing Project RoomKey

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Posted at 3:40 PM, Apr 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-18 18:40:19-04

LAGUNA HILLS (CNS) - Gov. Gavin Newsom Saturday accused some California local governments -- including, implicitly, Laguna Hills -- of acting immorally in opposing the use of hotels and motels to house homeless individuals during the COVID-19 crisis.

Newsom visited a Project Roomkey motel in Santa Clara County on Saturday, where he announced that the state's Project Roomkey effort has secured 10,974 hotel and motel rooms statewide for occupancy by homeless people.

The governor also announced that state officials have agreed with the Motel 6 chain to make all of its corporate-owned locations available to counties, effective immediately, for a lease template. Counties have the option to adopt the operating agreement for the locations within their jurisdiction, if they so choose.

"Today marks an important milestone for our efforts to protect very vulnerable homeless individuals from COVID-19, and to protect our hospitals more broadly from surges that challenge our capacity and stress our system," Newsom said. "Many of California's counties have done a fantastic job getting Project Roomkey hotels up and running. We need to do more -- and faster -- of course, but there's no doubt California is leading the way when it comes to treating our homeless population with the compassion and urgency this moment demands."

But his remarks took a more critical turn when he addressed what he termed as "NIMBYISM" among some localities.

"Cities are blocking these efforts at a time of crisis," Newsom said without naming any resistant municipalities. "Cities that are blocking those efforts -- please consider the morality of those decisions."

Last week, an Orange County Superior Court judge indicated he would grant a temporary restraining order blocking the county from using a state-and- federal program to house transients infected with COVID-19 at a Laguna Hills hotel, although the matter was continued until Monday.

Opponents say the use of the 76-bed Laguna Hills Inn at 23061 Avenida de la Carlota as a shelter for transients either showing coronavirus symptoms or who tested positive for COVID-19 is a public nuisance.

Attorney Kelly G. Richardson, who represents the city, said "We're not disputing the beneficial idea of trying to help transients. The county begins its papers saying this is a NIMBY issue," Richardson said, referring to the acronym for "Not in my backyard."

"This is dismissive and minimizes the issue and frankly is offensive. We're not talking about a factory that smells. We're talking about life and death here."

Richardson further argued that the county's support for the project contradicts its arguments against the state's plan in February to house COVID- 19 patients from a cruise ship at the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa.

The county's attorney, Kevin Dunn, countered that the transients engaged in the program could check into the hotel sick with the virus if they had the money and the city couldn't do anything about it.

"This is going to be people watching TV, eating chips just like anyone else would be," Dunn said.

The covenants, conditions and restrictions are not altered because it still operates as a hotel, Dunn argued.

"These people are not on ventilators, these people do not require hospitalization," Dunn said. "They just need to be isolated. This population of all populations needs to be isolated."

Otherwise, the county's transients could be spreading the virus anywhere without any monitoring, Dunn said.

It appears this is the first lawsuit of its kind to challenge Project Roomkey.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday, alleges a "public nuisance" that will "directly endanger the health and safety of the residents of the city."

Orange County opened up two other hotels in Stanton and Anaheim to house transients there.

Project Roomkey is a state program in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The program is meant to quarantine transients who have underlying health conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19 or homeless people who either have tested positive for the coronavirus or have symptoms associated with the disease.

The lawsuit alleges the project "will ultimately result in importing into the community a large group of sick and at-risk persons, when the city of Laguna Hills has thus far only had minimal occurrences of the virus."

Laguna Hills, which has a population of 31,572, has 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The lawsuit alleges that the hotel "is also only 250 meters away from a high-density mobile home park of 252 residences, comprised of mostly families, and including a significant percentage of high-risk elderly residents," and that "without adequate safety protocols," the project is a "public nuisance."

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said, "The city elected officials are doing what they need to do to feel like they're protecting or representing their residents to the best of their ability, but we're working under the governor's mandate, and every county ... is tasked with setting up these self-isolation facilities."

Bartlett said the hotels are "24-7, lockdown isolation facilities," meaning the transients who opt into the program are not free to come and go as they please. Health care workers who tend to them will also leave the area immediately after their shifts are done, Bartlett said.

"All medical services are done on the premises, food services are done on premises," she said.

"Health care workers when they leave for the day they follow the same protocols as in a hospital and will walk out to their vehicle and drive out of the area, so they won't be remaining in the area at all."

The hotel will only house transients based in south Orange County, Bartlett said.

"And at this point we have no homeless individuals who have tested positive in south county, so this isolation facility may never even be used, but pursuant to the state mandate we had to get a property under contract."