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Santa Rosa officers, firefighters to return to pre-pandemic schedules

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Santa Rosa police and firefighters will return to normal schedules early next week, nearly two months after their departments instituted emergency staffing models intended to stamp out a spike of coronavirus cases within their ranks.

The transition, which for police officers begins Sunday, marks an initial — yet cautious — step toward pre-coronavirus normalcy within the Santa Rosa Police Department, paralleling the recent relaxation in county and state rules surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro said.

The temporary schedule has been in place since March 29, when one of the department’s officers was fighting for her life in a Solano County hospital and several others had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. It put patrol officers on schedules of three to four days of 12½-hour shifts followed by two weeks of isolation at home. The 14-day buffer would allow an officer to recover from the illness before returning to work.

The hospitalized officer, Detective Marylou Armer, died of the illness on March 31. She was the first California peace officer to die from COVID-19.

“We were trying to address the coronavirus and the impact that it was having in the department,” Navarro said of the initial decision to change the patrol schedule. “It gave us an opportunity to put some mechanisms in place to keep us and the community as safe as possible.”

But the department hasn’t had a positive test among its ranks since the day Armer died, when another officer in the department’s traffic bureau became the ninth employee known to have contracted the respiratory disease.

Besides Armer, each of the officers who tested positive has since fully recovered and returned to work, Navarro said.

The transition to the normal schedule will also allow the department to redirect investigators, most of whom were diverted away from their offices to fill patrol shifts when the pandemic schedule began, back into their specialized units.

The group of investigators who respond to violent crimes was left partially intact, and a handful of detectives in the department’s domestic violence and sexual assault investigations unit also were allowed to remain in their unit. Specialized teams working property crimes, drug and traffic cases were temporarily disbanded and rerouted to patrol to fill needed spots there.

Departmentwide rules related to social distancing, contact with members of the public and the sanitation of department buildings, cars and equipment will remain. The department’s front desk will also remain closed for the time being.

“We’re going to maintain social distancing within the department; we’re going to continue to wear masks and follow those protocols when we’re contacting the public,” Navarro said.

The Santa Rosa Fire Department will join the city’s Police Department in relaxing coronavirus-related scheduling beginning next week, a decision that also came after county and state health orders related to the pandemic were loosened, Santa Rosa’s Deputy Fire Chief Scott Westrope said.

The agency adopted a modified schedule that barred firefighters from working at different firehouses after a first responder tested positive for COVID-19 in early April. That rule will be lifted on Monday, though a host of other safeguards, such as staggering the use of common areas to maintain social distancing, wearing protective equipment while staff respond to calls and taking employees’ temperatures twice a day, will continue.

“We’re trying to get things back to some sense of normalcy,” Westrope said.

Officer Stephen Bussell, the union president for the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association, said the department’s rank-and-file welcomed the transition away from the modified schedule, which didn’t allow officers to take time off unless they were sick, a situation that wasn’t sustainable long term, he said.

There were concerns, however, over whether a potential second wave of infections resulting from relaxed shelter-in-place rules would lead to higher rates of infections among sworn staff despite the new safety measures, he said.

“The biggest concern is just the unknown,” Bussell said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

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