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Police chief details COVID spike at department

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com
During last Thursday’s Claremont Police Commission meeting, Police Chief Aaron Fate provided a report on a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases within the department.

He told the commission that, beginning roughly in the middle of January, the department had 14 confirmed cases including Chief Fate himself.

“I tested positive. I had to stay at home, I was not able to come to work. Part of [the illness] just happened to be during the windstorm. I can’t tell you how terrible it felt to not only not feel good, but be told you cannot come in during a time like that,” he said.

Chief Fate said that based on his conversations with colleagues, Claremont got through the surge better than many but not as well as others. The department had three or more cases in a 14-day period, which triggered an inspection by county heath officials who found no health code violations at the station.

The inspectors used chalk dust to assess whether ventilation systems were working, which gave the chief a moment of pause given the age of the police facility, but the system was fine. The department did make some adjustments including keeping hand sanitizer near office equipment used by more than one employee such as the copier.

The COVID presentation was prompted by questions the commission and the police had received about the extent to which the Omicron drive surge had affected local staffing.

“Even with the cases that we had here, our staff really came together to fill all the gaps. We were able to staff all of our shifts the way we needed to, with the exception of a couple of times we had to close our records department a little earlier in the day than normal just because we did not have enough people to fill in up there,” Chief Fate said.

He added that some employees did work straight through, not taking any days off.

“It was a challenge and we made it through and luckily everybody is back healthy and doing good again. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but it looks like we are doing good now and are really past the surge, and I am hoping that it stays that way,” he said.

During questioning from the commission, Vice Chair Rolondo Talbott asked if there were any plans to conduct proactive testing to “detect any possible surges, to get ahead of it so we don’t have that many people out?”

Chief Fate responded that in sharp contrast to the peak of the last surge, the department had plenty of rapid tests on hand and every employee who reports symptoms would be tested with a supervisor present. Also, if somebody calls in saying they may be sick, they are told to stay home.

Vice Chair Talbott followed up by redirecting his question, asking if there were plans to administer testing throughout department regardless of reported symptoms. Chief Fate replied that the only directive from the state requires that jail staff be tested at the beginning of each employee’s workweek.

Commissioner Becky Margiotta followed up on Vice Chair Talbott’s question by asking if there could be citywide random and mandatory rapid testing given the prevalence of asymptomatic people who are still positive for the virus.

“Then you don’t have to get into ideological debates about vaccinations, just protect a group of people,” she added.

She then transitioned into a question about mask-wearing policy for the police force, recounting how she had seen, on two different occasions, Claremont officers who were unmasked while speaking with drivers they had pulled over and who were in close proximity.

“I personally cringe when I see that. I imagine the person being stopped does not have that much agency or freedom at that time … Maybe [they] feel scared or intimidated to ask someone to put a mask on,” Margiotta said.

She asked the chief if there was a policy that an officer must be wearing a mask when in close proximity with the public.

“There is no talk about putting a policy like that in place, we follow the county guidelines when it comes to that. But I completely understand what you are saying. [Officers] have been typically good about putting a mask on if somebody says something. We also have several people who could not understand the communication from the officer because they couldn’t see what they are saying and they couldn’t hear well enough [because of the mask],” Chief Fate said.

Commissioner Rafik Mohamed asked about the budgetary impact of having those 14 employees out and if there was any state or federal money to close the financial gap.

Chief Fate replied that there was no significant financial burden, largely because the cases were staggered rather than occurring all at once. He compared it with having a few people out on vacation and then a couple more calling in sick. He floated the idea that the city’s slice of the American Rescue Plan Act could possibly cover those costs but admitted he was unsure whether that was an allowed expense.

Concerns about crime and prostitution at freeway-adjacent motels

During public comment every single caller voiced concerns about the growing problem of prostitution and general crime in and around the motels that are near the 10 Freeway and Indian Hill Boulevard.

Ideas included a city an ordinance that could jeopardize an inn’s business license if too many complaints about crime occurred during a given time period. There was also great concern expressed about the safety and health of the female sex workers and worry about human trafficking.

Last month the commission set up a special ad hoc committee to find solutions to this problem and the commissioners were receptive to the comments form the public.

The next police commission meeting will take place on March 3.

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