Majority of callers to Ridgecrest City Council town went to get their city open again

The city of Ridgecrest would overturn Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shutdown orders if most of the people calling into a virtual town hall Wednesday had their way.

The two-hour meeting included scores of people, nearly all of whom objected to Newsom’s business closure directives to some extent. Many suggested undoing the directives gradually and “safely,” while others urged the city to practice municipal disobedience and simply refuse to comply.

Only Ridgecrest’s mayor and one councilmember were involved in the meeting, along with three other community leaders. It was intended as a forum to gather public feedback to pass on to the county level and the governor. Mayor Peggy Breeden and the other leaders said the city is bound by the restrictions placed by the governor and the Kern County Health Department.

Callers ranged from angry voices demanding organized defiance to others asking if the city can politely petition the governor for an exemption from his directives. Many speakers were local business owners who said they were losing money after closing shop. Others spoke of people leaving the area for economic reasons.

A caller who identified himself only as Dave suggested the city simply disregard Newsom’s directives.

“Let Americans be Americans. Let Americans be free,” he said. “This is our town. We voted for you guys to protect us and our resources. It’s pathetic. It’s sad. I wish you guys would step up and be the mayor and council members we voted you to be.”

Another caller, Dave Matthews said, “I have said from day one that this whole shutdown is unconstitutional. The dictators are there and they are making the decisions and we are letting them.” Like many callers, Matthews suggested a gradual but immediate reopening of businesses.

Many made the argument that as a small, rural community with only six COVID-19 cases Ridgecrest does not have the same need for protection as larger urban areas.

“We’re a rural area. We’re not LA,” said Everett Scott.

A couple of callers voiced the opposite view, arguing that the small number of cases in Ridgecrest is the direct result of successful social distancing.

“I think there’s only five (cases, a prior statistic) because we have done a damn good job of keeping everyone inside and obeying and listening to the rules,” said a female caller who did not give a name.

“Our cases have dropped in the county and in Ridgecrest because of the shutdown,” Charlotte Collins said.

Ridgecrest Regional Hospital CEO Jim Suver, a member of the panel that convened the town hall, concurred. He said in his opinion social distancing has indeed slowed the spread of the virus in the community. Suver said the needs of the economy need to be balanced with the requirement of protecting the most vulnerable members of the community.

Suver also noted volume and revenue at the hospital is down by 80 percent, but economic concerns need to be tempered with public safety.

”We do have to be careful about a second surge. Because epidemiologically that could happen,” he said.

The majority of the six COVID-19 positive cases – none of whom have required hospitalization – picked up the virus elsewhere, Suver said.

Suver added that more tracking is required and “we are still suffering with a significant lack of testing.” He added that the current data is “woefully short” of the number of tests necessary to get a significant sampling and that he anticipates it will be late May before significant testing is accomplished.

On the plus side, Suver reported progress in obtaining personal protective equipment for medical personnel.

Business owners asked specific questions, usually about why they had been shut down when – they claimed – other similar businesses had not. Ridgecrest Police Chief Jed McLaughlin promised to follow up on each individual inquiry.

Organizers had said they would read emails from the public during Wednesday’s meeting, but scrapped that plan because there were too many. City Clerk Ricca Charlon said all 150 emails received to date will be forwarded to the committee and will be read.

The meeting was also attended by City Manager Ron Strand and Councilman Scott Hayman, the city’s representative to the Kern County committee looking into reopening the local economy. The Ridgecrest City Council will next meet May 6, and the pandemic will be “front and center” at the upcoming meeting according to Hayman.

“This isn’t the end, this is just the start,” Hayman said.

The latest meeting in Ridgecrest takes place as other areas have begun to question the governor’s directives.

The Taft City Council voted on Monday to send a letter to Kern County Public Health Director Matt Constantine requesting guidance on a plan to reopen barber shops, hair salons, flower shops, gyms and other small businesses on May 4. The Department of Public Health responded that the city does not have the authority to do so and must follow Newsom’s March 19 stay-at-home order.

Newsom announced Tuesday his four-phase plan for ending the statewide shutdown. Newsom hinted the state could move toward reopening some low-risk workplaces in weeks not months but did not give an overall timetable.