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Public safety limits in-person contact 

Just as local law enforcement and fire agencies are working to limit the spread of coronavirus among public safety personnel, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office is facing a potential outbreak.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office announced on March 17 that 13 employees are in quarantine at their homes because of a Main Jail control room worker who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

A civilian employee of the Sheriff's Office, who lives in SLO County and recently returned from a trip to Europe, tested positive for coronavirus after becoming sick at work and seeking medical attention. That employee is now in isolation at home, according to the Sheriff's Office, along with several other at-risk colleagues who work in the Santa Barbara County Main Jail: four sworn Santa Barbara County custody deputies, a general services employee, two healthcare workers, and five other civilian Sheriff's Office personnel.

The at-risk employees were evaluated by medical staff but weren't showing any coronavirus-related symptoms.

Two Santa Barbara County Jail inmates and a bailiff are also being evaluated by medical staff after coming into contact with another SLO County resident who recently tested positive for coronavirus, an attorney who worked in a Santa Maria courtroom on March 12. The bailiff is also in isolation.

Raquel Zick, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, said she isn't sure when the impacted employees would be able to return to work or who's able to work from home. But employees were sent home, she said, if they were deemed to have even a minor chance of coming down with COVID-19.

"So it's kind of a time of measured caution," Zick told New Times, "and that's what we're taking."

Though the quarantined employees are just a small percentage of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office's 676 total employees, this is the exact type of situation public safety agencies throughout the Central Coast are hoping to avoid.

In San Luis Obispo County, a number of police and fire departments are working to limit in-person contacts with the public wherever possible.

For the SLO Police Department, that means taking a lot more reports over the phone, via email, and online, according to Capt. Jeff Smith. In the instance of something like a cold theft, shoplifting, vandalism, stolen vehicles, or even an assault without an identified suspect, Smith said the SLO Police Department is encouraging the public to phone in the necessary information or provide it online.

If evidence collection, interviews, or photos are necessary, Smith said officers will still go to the scene of the crime while keeping social distancing in mind. SLO police officers all have protective gear—gloves, masks, suits—that can be used to limit exposure, access to the police department building itself is limited, and any employees who can work from home are already doing so.

The SLO Police Department is still operating at full capacity and doing business as usual, but Smith said officers often take calls together and work closely as a team. If one officer were to contract COVID-19, there are concerns that it could spread quickly through the force and diminish the department's abilities.

"We don't want to expose a large number of our force," Smith told New Times. "If this continues to grow we'll look at additional measures. But our primary concern is that we have officers and firefighters to respond to calls for service."

The same goes for the Paso Robles Police Department, which announced on March 15 plans to reduce "non-essential in-person contact" by handling non-emergency calls over the phone or through its online reporting system.

In Grover Beach, the police department building is closed entirely to public access. Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters said anyone hoping to file a report or speak with an officer can do so over the phone or via email.

The police department also has a public phone outside the front doorway of its lobby, which Peters said residents can use to file reports or get copies of reports or vehicle release forms. And considering the financial impacts of this public health emergency, Peters said Grover Beach police are waiving "all reasonable fees" associated with copies for now.

Grover Beach doesn't currently have an online police reporting system, but Peters said such a program is in the works. It's unclear, however, when that will be up and running.

Similar to San Luis Obispo, Peters said the Grover Beach Police Department is still operating at full force, but with some minor tweaks to keep both officers and the public safe from this virus.

"We don't want to impose an illness on someone," Peters told New Times. "And we don't want to contract an illness." Δ

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