Santa Clara County repurposes fairgrounds to protect homeless from coronavirus
Santa Clara County Fairgrounds on Sunday, March 29, as it is being repurposed to slow coronavirus spread among the homeless community. Photo by Rachel Leven.

Santa Clara County will soon use its fairgrounds to shelter at least five dozen homeless residents and provide trailers to socially isolate people with mild cases or symptoms of coronavirus in its latest effort to limit the spread of the pandemic.

The 150-acre area normally hosts events like weddings and dog training. Now, it will now be used to alleviate crowding at shelters, Cindy Chavez, president of Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors, said on Sunday.

“We’re really trying to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to follow our local and state public health directives, which is everybody in our community needs to shelter in place and if they don’t have a place to shelter-in-place, we’re trying to help them get there,” Chavez told reporters at the fairgrounds. She added, we “want to make sure that the virus doesn’t run rampant in any community.”

The repurposing of the public space is the latest step by the county to fight the novel coronavirus, which has already killed 25 people and infected hundreds more here. The main purpose will be to limit the spread the virus among the county’s more than 9,700 homeless residents.

There is already a fully operational coronavirus drive-thru test site, run by Verily, at the fairgrounds. The county is also considering using the “Fiesta Hall” to help people without computers or access to the internet to apply for aid like food stamps and unemployment.

This isn’t the first public space the county has overhauled in response to COVID-19. Local officials also remade the Santa Clara Convention Center into a temporary medical facility. But while other California areas have used their fairgrounds to support the community in disasters like wildfires, Chavez said she can’t remember any disasters on this scale where the county has used its grounds like this.

Late last year, county supervisors mulled new uses for the underutilized Santa Clara County Fairgrounds which have mostly sat vacant, including USA Cricket, a county park and a San Jose Earthquakes Soccer Academy.

Abraham Andrade, executive director of the Fairgrounds Management Corp., the nonprofit that oversees these grounds, said he’s proud that the area is “able to serve a very high community need.” He touted that the Verily drive-thru was set up in just a few days and that it’s only taken a week to get the homeless housing expansion in place, too.

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez and Fairgrounds Management Corp. Executive Director Abraham Andrade stand in front of a building where 60 to 80 homeless residents will stay during the pandemic. Photo by Rachel Leven.

LifeMoves, a nonprofit focused on addressing homelessness in Silicon Valley, will start setting up the new shelter for 60 to 80 people on Monday. There will be 15 trailers to be used for social isolation, where one person can stay per trailer, Chavez said.

The trailers could be open by the end of the week, Chavez said. The sickest individuals will still be sent to hospitals, she said.

This latest action won’t address overcrowding or other issues at encampments of unsheltered people, the longtime lawmaker acknowledged.

But by offering spaces like these trailers, it will help stop homeless individuals who are sick from spreading the virus to other unsheltered people, she said. It also builds on other local efforts, like renting hotel and motel rooms for homeless individuals, to limit the spread of the virus, she said. On Friday, volunteers distributed hand sanitizer and other life-saving essentials to San Jose homeless encampments.

The county hopes to have more trailers at the fairground and elsewhere for similar purposes soon. It plans to repair another 100 trailers, Chavez said.

Chavez told reporters she expects the county to issue an updated shelter-in-place order this week, but it isn’t clear how long an extended order would last.

But it may be months, rather than weeks. Andrade told San José Spotlight he is still hoping the annual fair set to begin August 6 will take place, for his entertainers, vendors and others that work the event.

“We’re waiting anxiously,” he said. “So many people are affected by this.”

That will all depend on whether government and others can slow the pandemic. When asked whether she thought the county was doing enough to prevent the spread of the virus, Chavez paused.

“Twenty-five people have died,” she said. “We have (646) people as we speak that we know have tested positive, and every single life in our community is precious to us, right?”

She added, “But what I know is, we’re not going to give it any ground.”

Contact Rachel Leven at [email protected] or follow @rachelpleven on Twitter.

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