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Lancaster, California: Response to COVID From the City's Perspective

For its last iCHIEFS e-newsletter of the year, the IAFC wanted to highlight what towns and cities across the nation have done to coordinate their response and recovery from COVID-19 and how they used their public safety partners to accomplish their goals.  

The article highlights the City of Lancaster, which is located approximately 70 miles north of Los Angeles with a population of 172,000. Its history goes back to the late 1800s as one of the many towns established due to the Southern Pacific Railroad. Lancaster is located in the northern portion of the geopolitical boundary of the County of Los Angeles. Public safety for the City is provided by the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. City government is accomplished through an elected mayor/city council government with a city manager. Lancaster is part of the Antelope Valley, which includes the city of Palmdale, directly to the south, as well as 12 townships within the surrounding unincorporated Los Angeles county area. 

On March 19, 2020, the State of California issued a mandatory stay at home order for all state residents to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, the whole world started to realize how devastating this virus would turn out to be.

In the City of Lancaster, we were ahead of the curve -- having launched a proactive and inclusive approach beginning months earlier to educate residents about COVID, fighting the virus, and serving community members in need of help.

We knew we could not do this alone. Partnering with Lancaster's experts and enhancing the resources our community was primed to offer proved to be monumental in protecting our residents.

Our ability to move forward with hope, grit, and passion is owed to our entire community and their perseverance. Lancaster's mission has always been to put our residents first, enhance the quality of life for our communities, and propel our City forward with innovation and resilience. Faced with the threat of COVID, we fought to move our community through the crisis and emerge stronger together.

Looking to the Experts
Upon hearing the alarming reports coming from China in January, Lancaster knew we had to get ahead of it and began planning for the virus reaching the Antelope Valley.

In January, the City launched our education efforts, encouraging residents to stop shaking hands, get flu shots, and avoid large gatherings. As the situation overseas worsened, we knew we had to strengthen our tactics.

As a city without a public health department, I realized we needed to seek help from experts. I deputized two new Deputy Mayors: Dr. Lawrence Stock, MD, an emergency medicine specialist on the ground in Africa during the Ebola outbreak, and Dr. Jonathan Truong, MD, an infectious disease specialist. Their roles provided the City with insight as we developed an extensive COVID contingency plan and worked to respond to our community's needs.

By the beginning of March, it became clear to the City that the plan we had developed in preparation for coronavirus needed to be enacted. So, the City authorized a local state of emergency on March 16, 2020, despite having no confirmed cases within City limits yet.

That day, we also launched the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to communicate with Los Angeles County, hospitals, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and the L.A. County Fire Department as well as local residents and then to coordinate necessary resources to those who need it, ensure local businesses have needed funding and plan for the future of this emergency.

Utilizing the advice of our experts, in April, we became the first city in California to require residents to wear a face covering in public. But we had to take it a step further. Lancaster prioritized buying and distributing face coverings to individuals in our local prison, working in factories, and those experiencing homelessness to ensure every resident could protect themselves. It was not enough to just require masks – we had to unite to get through this together.

A Multi-Agency Approach
As cases began increasing in Los Angeles County, and we confirmed the first few cases in Lancaster, we again looked to our partners in the Antelope Valley that could help us meet our residents' needs.

Early on, the City's local medical center, Antelope Valley Hospital (AVH), recognized the potential strain that COVID-19 could impose on our local medical resources. We established a partnership with the City, Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, located just north of the City and Antelope Valley College, our local junior college, to assemble the Antelope Valley COVID-19 Task Force.

This innovative team worked through ever-changing hurdles to design and build a patient oxygen hood that allowed oxygen-rich pressure to support those admitted with COVID-19. The hood helped reduce the need for ventilator support and spared valuable resources.

The Antelope Valley COVID-19 Task Force also sought to reduce healthcare workers' exposure by creating designs for protective enclosures and an antechamber for workers to change in and out of protective clothing safely.

Finally, the task force helped set up a distributed oxygen delivery system to prepare for a surge in patients. It worked on sourcing additional personal protective equipment (PPE) when it was most needed.

The City continued to seek other collaborative partnerships with local organizations. The Salvation Army collaborated with the City to set up a secondary field hospital in Lancaster that provided all necessary equipment to operate efficiently. We also worked with the Antelope Valley Hospital to create logistics and operation plans in case of a rapid rise in cases. We sought help from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to supply stand-by support and conduct elderly welfare checks.

We knew our response hinged on the partnerships we made. Our response and plan centered around multi-agency coordination, and the entire city rallied around us.

Uniting Lancaster
As our community supported us, we knew we could not rest until we had addressed our community's concerns and problems.

At the end of March, Lancaster approved the Stand Strong Business Recovery Loan program to swiftly get money into our business owners' pockets as quickly as possible. This was followed by launching the Small Business Recovery Resource (SBRR), a group of City staff that assisted local business owners with their questions and concerns regarding their businesses during the pandemic.

When restaurants were permitted only to serve customers outside, Lancaster introduced the Dine Out Lancaster program to streamline the process and waived fees for restaurants looking to implement outdoor dining.

We partnered with the City of Palmdale to unveil "Operation Jump Start," an economic stimulus program where people who purchased a new vehicle at the Lancaster and Palmdale Auto Malls would receive a $500 gift card.

The Grace Chapel and Lancaster Baptist Church, two local churches, helped the city launch Project Door Drop, which delivered groceries to local seniors, so they did not have to leave their homes and risk exposure. In partnership with Antelope Valley Partners for Health, we initiated Feed the Need to supply dietician-approved meals to seniors and homeless families experiencing isolation and food insecurity.

Finally, the city rolled out its Emergency Rental Assistance Grant program for tenants experiencing financial hardships due to the pandemic.

Through these innovative solutions and partnerships, the Antelope Valley is emerging from this crisis stronger than before.

Through it all, City Staff Pressed On
While the COVID-19 pandemic somehow impacted everyone's lives, our devoted and strategic City staff didn't miss a beat. Our commitment to investing in innovative practices allowed City staff to press on and continue offering essential services to our residents while everything about their jobs changed.

Last year, we launched STIR (Strategic, Technology, Innovation, and Resilience), a program that encourages innovation and cultivates new, unconventional ideas. STIR has proven instrumental in sustaining our effective response to the pandemic by helping staff transition into a "Virtual City Hall." When our offices reopened, we organized two different sets of schedules for employees, so only half would be physically in City Hall on any given day.

Our city manager's office coordinated a daily message to EOC employees in the morning and an afternoon message to all City staff to keep all employees informed and aware of the pandemic's realities.

Even from their homes, City staff continued to send out a daily eNews to keep residents informed about the ongoing local situation. The Mayor also published a Daily Mayor's Message video with COVID-19 updates, information, and a myriad of resources for residents.

While we are still battling the pandemic and numerous challenges that wait for us ahead, we must press on. The future will not wait for us to catch up. Lancaster remains steadfast to accelerating an economic and cultural revival in our city, and we anticipate seeing our communities flourish and blossom as we take on life after the pandemic. Together.

R. Rex Parris is the mayor of Lancaster, California. He is a native of California currently serving his fifth term.

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