On Thursday, February 18th, a staff member working at the Library Galleria warming center tested positive for COVID-19. The city immediately ordered the center, along with its counterpart in Southside Park, to close and undergo a “deep clean.” The “Safe Parking” location in the City Hall garage remained open for parking and camping, but that was it. 

City staff spent Friday morning, the day after the positive test, in Cesar Chavez Park across from the Galleria warming center, administering COVID tests to all who wanted them. Mutual aid efforts kicked into effect, with Sacramento Homeless Union members determining how to safely continue providing food and supplies to the homeless—all while members who had volunteered at the warming centers quarantined themselves. 

Two staff members and one person from the unhoused community tested positive for the virus, two days after the first positive case.The Sacramento County’s Public Health Officer then ordered the centers to remain closed for an additional 8 days. Mayor Darrell Steinberg released a statement saying, “we as a City will do everything we can to support the three warming center workers and one guest who have tested positive.” 

Thankfully, in the days since the additional positive tests, there have been no more reported cases. As of Monday evening, disaster seems to have been averted. What could’ve been a terrible super-spreader event has stopped at just these four positive cases. Yet it could’ve been far worse. Had the infected people volunteered another few nights or not gotten tested, Sacramento could be looking at a full-blown outbreak within the homeless population. 

This close brush with outbreak shows the main issues inherent in opening warming centers during a pandemic—namely, the pandemic doesn’t stop spreading. In fact, that was the main reason City Manager Howard Chan refused to open warming centers during the January 26th storm. The warming centers had been open the night before and Chan was concerned opening them multiple nights in a row may increase the chances of spreading COVID. 

Chan’s refusal to act was deemed so outrageous that it led City Hall to declare a weather emergency and order warming centers to open indefinitely. Yet, while the decision not to open the shelters in the face of the worst winter storm in years may have been a serious lapse in judgement, the recent positive tests show that Chan’s concern was not entirely without merit. 

Related: The Sacramento Warming Centers Controversy, Explained

City officials haven’t given up yet, however, and plan to reopen shelters once allowed. To deal with the COVID risk, there are plans in place for enhanced safety measures once shelters are allowed to reopen. Enhanced screenings of both volunteers and guests, plans to open more shelters in other locations, and reducing maximum capacity limits in all shelters are methods officials hope will prevent an outbreak from occuring in the future. Yet the beds in the Library Galleria shelter were placed 12 feet apart even before the events on Thursday. It seems doubtful that any amount of improved safety measures are enough to reduce the risk close to zero.

The only real solution to housing people during the Coronavirus pandemic is non-congregate shelters, or individual/single-family housing. One such program is the state’s Project Roomkey, which houses people in motels that have seen their business decrease during the pandemic. This arrangement allows people to get off the streets without being exposed to dozens of volunteers, city staff members, and other homeless people. 

Sacramento has participated in Project Roomkey, with the city opening three motel shelters during the pandemic. But there are upwards of 6,000 people homeless in Sacramento at any one time, far more than the number of available beds. If city leaders truly want to safely house people, they should focus more of their efforts at expanding non-congregate shelter programs. And, thanks to the federal government, they have all the resources they need to do so. 

Just over a month ago, President Joe Biden signed an executive order telling FEMA to fully reimburse cities and other jurisdictions for the cost to open and operate non-congregate shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, officials can open motel shelters and house people at no cost to the city—bankrolled entirely by the feds. So will they? 

City Councilmember Katie Valenzuala, who has been advocating for the city to take advantage of this funding since late January, seemed hopeful. Sacramento leaders are “moving very quickly to take advantage of this opportunity,” she said. 

Valenzuela, who represents the 4th district—including Downtown Sacramento where much of the homeless population lives—has been very vocal in support of expanding homeless shelters. She hopes to greatly expand the city’s hotel voucher program, saying, “We partnered with City staff to pursue every lead on hotels that may be eligible for scaling up Project Room Key so we can move people indoors for as long as possible. We are on track to bring hundreds of additional rooms online in the next couple of weeks.” 

These extra rooms are certainly going to be necessary if officials hope to prevent another outbreak like the one seen this week.