Documents show SSU told Sonoma County in late May that deal for coronavirus care site wouldn’t be extended
Top Sonoma County health officials have known for at least five weeks that Sonoma State University would end in June its contract with the county for COVID-19 quarantine and isolation space at the university dorms, a revelation Monday that underscores the county’s failure to identify a replacement site amid a rising coronavirus caseload.
By May 21, just three weeks after sick and vulnerable residents began occupying student housing, SSU officials had communicated their desire to regain control of the dorms by June 30 in at least one phone call, one email and one official letter to Barbie Robinson, whose Health Services department took the lead in securing the SSU facilities.
The university has been willing to extend the county’s use of the campus recreation center and other facilities not connected with student housing since mid-May, but campus officials identified student housing as key to starting classes as soon as Aug. 18.
County officials appeared to have been caught flat-footed by the university’s decision, first reported Monday.
“We went into this with the impression that we were going to have until Sept. 5,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, referring to the full term of the $5 million contract, provided both parties agreed on month-by-month extensions. “We really didn’t expect that we would be here this early.”
Robinson, the health services director, declined an interview Monday to answer questions about the timeline and progression of contract extension talks with SSU, which began mid-May. She also declined to comment on Sunday when the campus’ stance was first reported by The Press Democrat.
In an email late Monday to county supervisors, Robinson sought to explain the development as a communication breakdown, sharing a summary of negotiations with SSU officials over the weekend that were unsuccessful for the county.
“We reiterated the importance of the site to our standing with the state and our vulnerable community members,” Robinson wrote in the letter. It named SSU President Judy Sakaki, Vice President of Operations Joyce Lopes and county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase as parties in the talks. “We also expressed that we would not have entered into the agreement if we’d known that they would not allow us to exercise the three extensions to the agreement, and we expected execution of the extensions barring some major breach of the contract.”
Robinson said her staff has identified four possible replacement sites for the homeless residents, but she didn’t name the sites in her email.
Supervisors on Monday were tight-lipped about what they had been told by Robinson ‒ and when ‒ about the university’s refusal to extend the deal.
“I can’t comment on what we knew when,” Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin said in an interview. “The issue is urgent now to come up with Plan B or fully develop Plan B … I would think that we’re going to have something to inform the community and the board about on Thursday.”
As of Monday afternoon, 125 residents still occupied SSU dorm rooms, including 114 vulnerable homeless residents, and neither officials from SSU nor Sonoma County could pinpoint an exit date for the county. The “final notice” letter July 1 from the university gave the county until July 5 to relocate patients and at-risk homeless individuals from the dorms.
Although supervisors said it would have been unusual for elected leaders to get involved in such negotiations, Gorin said in hindsight she could have taken a more active role.
“It occurs to me I probably should have had conversations with President Sakaki before this,” Gorin said, referring to her only phone call with Sakaki, which took place last Friday. “When it became apparent that it would be helpful to have that conversation, we did so.”
The county’s path forward, including its exit plan at SSU, remains unclear.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, vice chair of the board, said “clearly we needed to have contingency plans in place,” but she joined Gorin and Zane in expressing surprise that SSU maintained the same position it carved out more than a month ago.
“Those hospital beds are filling up as we speak,” Zane said. “We really need to shelter those people. Those are my folks that I represent; those are vulnerable seniors. I’m going to appeal to President (Judy) Sakaki to give us more time for those people.”
Sakaki was unavailable for an interview Monday, but interim university spokesman Robert Eyler said in an email that the repossession of campus facilities “is ultimately the president’s decision.”
“The key reason is that we (are) housing vulnerable students and students generally for whom the campus is a better learning environment for them,” Eyler said via email. The California State University chancellor’s office, as well as the Governor’s office, were made aware of the decision and have not objected, he said.