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Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton On COVID Vaccine, Camping In City Parks

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Unknown Speaker
We are on Facebook Live with Bloomington Mayor john Hamilton. Let me get some of my buttons in order. This is the Ask the mayor show we do weekly on Wi Fi you and so far Bloomington, john Hamilton, the only one that will agree to go live on Facebook. So we appreciate that. But if you have a question for Jim Lynn up in Columbus or Terre Haute Mayor do that at municipal consultant DAX Norton, in Nashville, go ahead and send those at any time to news at Indiana public media.org. You can also tweet us at ask the mayor. And we'll begin by saying welcome Bloomington Mayor john Hamilton.

Unknown Speaker
Nice to see you, Joe. Good to be together.

Unknown Speaker
So let's just start with COVID-19 update. Overall statewide. Monroe County's second lowest seven day positivity rate was at 7.3%. Of course, we have news the vaccines started arriving in Indiana Monday. But it's not time to let your guard down. I know right before Thanksgiving, you ask people not to share air with a different household. Are you asking the same four people for these upcoming holidays? Yeah, Joe,

Unknown Speaker
you know, it's it's kind of good news and bad news. Let's start with the bad news. Really, the bad news is, while there may be good, good indicators on some positivity rates, overall in Indiana and and in our county, our community, the numbers are going the wrong direction. We're seeing case rates continuing to be way too high. We're seeing deaths in our county are actually now averaging two a day on our rolling average two deaths a day that's we've never been there before until the last week or two hospitalizations are still worrying. So we know that this this infection is all around us. Many people are carrying it, you often don't know who is infected, they may not have any symptoms. But it's around us. And it's killing people and really hurting us, our state employee, our sorry, our city government employee numbers. We had 16 cases for eight months, then we had 16 cases in one month of November. And we've been averaging a case a day in December. So and that's mostly spread through households. And it's not happening at the workplace generally. So the bad news is, we have a lot of this pandemic around us in our community, and it's hurting us. And we have to be extremely vigilant again, not sharing air, wear masks stay distant through the holidays into next year, it's still going to need very diligent attention.

Unknown Speaker
And that's what Mayor Bennett in Terre Haute said last week, during that show was that he wasn't about to shut down businesses because he says that's not where the spread is happening. It's really happening within households. It sounds like you're saying the same.

Unknown Speaker
We're continuing to listen to the public health effect experts and the contact tracing and other data that do indicate it is primarily it seems to be in social relationships, people interacting in their households outside their households gathering sizes, it can be just gathering with one or two people where it can happen. Now, the good news is, as you mentioned, the vaccine is coming. It's being produced. It's being packaged and delivered from our Bloomington West Side at Katelyn, that's going to be sending vaccine all around to people who need it. We know needles are going into people's arms around the country and here locally very soon. And that will help that will be how we get out of this crisis. But it's but and that's exciting. And it's incredible the way science and our health experts have have stepped up to figure this all out. But it's not going to happen for a few months. We're going to need to stay vigilant.

Unknown Speaker
And that's mainly the questions we've been getting our emails into the newsroom is when do you expect Monroe County to receive it? And how will that roll out?

Unknown Speaker
Well, Indiana University Health as you may have heard, they've got their freezers there, they've been delivered, they're ready. They should be getting the vaccine vials the first set of the first vaccine any day, and they expect to begin vaccinations within a few days. I think Monday the 21st was the last date I heard as the expectation it could be a little earlier a little later. And I know once they get those vaccine vials, they're going to be trying to vaccinate as many people as quickly as they can, beginning with health care workers, direct health care workers, the heroes who've been on the front lines and then including some of our elderly in long term care facilities who are particularly vulnerable. You know, the vast majority of deaths are happening at older older folks. And so trying to get them first, it'll move to first responders and others. And then gradually, as we get more vaccine, both types and amounts, it will extend to the wider public. And in the first quarter of 2021, I think we expect to have much wider opportunity for people to get vaccinated.

Unknown Speaker
I know you've kind of mentioned this, but I want to make sure Janice wrote in and was asking about nursing facilities getting the vaccine, would it be on a staggered basis as the health care workers do? You know,

Unknown Speaker
from what I understand, and this is basically driven by public health experts, state and local, in consultation with national but the long term care facilities, nursing homes and other such facilities will probably primarily have those dosages delivered on site. For the residents. Now, the the attendance to the health care providers are probably generally going to be going very soon to get their shots. And then, you know, as quickly as possible, we'll be delivering I believe that healthcare system will be delivering the vaccinations that can happen on site, you know, our fire department and other paramedics are able to do that we may have we may have mobile vaccinations when necessary. We expect places that deliver flu shots like a pharmacy will be able to deliver this shot to in the future, not not in the next few weeks, probably but but thereafter.

Unknown Speaker
I want to get to Kathy and Daniel wrote in kind of a similar question, not sure if you can answer but will the vaccine be available to people with compromised immune systems pre existing conditions? Well,

Unknown Speaker
again, I

Unknown Speaker
shouldn't I'm not a health expert on that. But I do think the focus is on trying to get the the workforce that are at risk, and that are essential, beginning with the frontline health care workers and then moving to other workforces, as well as the populations that are most at risk. And that includes long term care. And it will include I believe, people who have medical conditions or other indicators of great risk, that's the idea is, you know, kind of parallel workforce workers who we need to protect. And then individuals who are most at risk of getting sick.

Unknown Speaker
Sarah wrote, and she's a teacher, 65 years old, wants to know how to get the vaccine. And I assume, just like everything else, wait, there'll be information forthcoming, right?

Unknown Speaker
There will be you can reach out to the health department now or watch online, there's there's going to be a basically a statewide website, focus that will ask anybody all the vaccinations are going to be scheduled generally. And you'll go on this website. I think it's so tech that you will seek to get and they'll ask you questions and kind of set you in priority based upon on the answer to those questions.

Unknown Speaker
The state announced Monday, third phase of its COVID-19 Response Program is now open for applications will the city be applying? And if so, what are the needs for Bloomington?

Unknown Speaker
If there's a place to apply to get help, we will be applying? Yes. So, you know, we've it's been really important to get financial support. It's important for us to pay directly for some of the expenses that we have on equipment in over time and direct services facilities. But it's also helpful just to help supplement what is a very challenging fiscal situation for most of us, I seriously hope and encourage that the federal government will continue that to pass support through to state and local governments. We haven't laid anybody off, we haven't furloughed, anybody, I don't want to we want to keep everybody working in their critical jobs. But you know, not in the immediate years a year ahead, but in the out years, it's starting to look, there's some serious pressure on that. So that help will be really important.

Unknown Speaker
But is there like a number one, number two need that money can help right now?

Unknown Speaker
Well, really, you know, mostly what we need now is just the assurance that we can keep providing all the basic services like running our water plants and patrolling our streets and having the fire department there and sanitation pickup and parks department, you know, keep taking care of parks and all the things we need to do. We have some revenue shortfalls right now and projected next year, that put some pressure on that we should be okay through 2021. We've been in a very strong fiscal situation. As you know, it's a strong balance, which has been critical but long run, we do need to keep those basic government functions going. You know, and then locally in the community. We want to make sure our teachers all are staying employed and that our health care workers are all staying employed. Because there are a lot of families really hurting right now.

Unknown Speaker
Let's get to the last week's meeting to ban camping at city parks that ended up failing after public response. And then the city decided to enforce rules that prohibit after hours camping at city parks for those experiencing homelessness kind of two things, but all happened together last week. My first question would just be why is all this coming to heads? Now, the timing doesn't make sense to some that this would happen now?

Unknown Speaker
Well,

Unknown Speaker
you know, this has been a extraordinary year, of course, in so many ways. And the first thing I want to say is, it's been really gratifying to see the collaborations that have developed and activated and accelerated this year among governments, nonprofits, foundations, and others to try to do all we can to keep the safety net strong. Millions of dollars from the private sector and the public sector have helped create more shelter beds helped create programs to support food access, and Housing Access, childcare access, and mental services and health services, those kinds of things. And that's been really important. One piece of that, in our park system, you know, we've had more use of parks, many, many, everybody's been using our parks a lot more. And we're trying to make sure that the parks are available to everybody, on the daily basis that they are from 5am to 11pm. Every day in the 30 plus city parks, we've had some parks where there have been some people in really rough shape, who are who are dealing with a lot of challenges in their lives. And we've tried to, and have been reaching out extensively to people who use the parks during the day, to try to help we created a new program called public health in the parks that actually put up tables of staffed public health experts and parks folks to try to help connect people to services that they might need. Now, at the same time, for many years, we've had a prohibition against camping in the parks overnight sleeping in the parks. And that's been consistently upheld for for many years, and helping people find places to stay if they need places to stay, but not not sleeping in parks. And, and last week, we looked at as there were, you know, one of the things that parks is we want to make sure they're available to everybody that means literally everybody, everybody belongs in a park who wants to be in a park, there's certain behavior requirements, you can't tear up parks or interrupt other people's uses of parks. But But we want everybody to enjoy the parks. And we did look at and recommended a change to the parks rules to prohibit structures, if you will, in parks during the day, tense, assembling of tarps and collecting lots of material because there was concern that it was interrupting. Everybody's used to the parks. That was the discussion last week. And the parks board decided not to move forward on that wanted to look at it further there were public opposed to it, or some public in favor of it. But after that decision, we we continue to allow any structures in parks during the day. But we did move forward and say continue what we've done, which is you can't camp and sleep in parks and what had been, some people have been leaving a lot of material in the parks overnight and overnight. And we did change that last week to make sure we're keeping the parks available to everybody.

Unknown Speaker
So we spoke to one shelter I you know, I read a report about another shelter that's full and they weren't aware that this enforcement was coming. Why wasn't that being communicated to the shelters? Well, I

Unknown Speaker
actually I think there was a lot of communication with the shelters. I'm not sure if the word didn't get to through and around to everybody. But you know, we've been meeting every day with folks in the parks and working very closely with our partners who provide shelters or other services. In fact, the night that the change was put into place center stone and professionals from some of the organizations were there. It's really important I think for people to know also that we have empty shelter beds in the city that are available to use. Many of the people who are in the parks for long periods during the day are not are not homeless now. They're not there because they don't have a place to sleep but they're there to use the park during the day. And as you probably know when when we did remind people that you can't keep a tent up in the park overnight. offers were made to transfer anybody who wanted to needed to go to a shelter of very small numbers said yes, the majority had other places that they have been living and will continue living now. Let me also just say, look, as a mayor, I'm, I worry. I fear that we will lose people we can have people in the Indiana winters who can die from exposure that has happened and It's critically important that we help people who don't have a place to sleep to have a safe, warm place to sleep, everybody in Bloomington ought to have a safe, decent, affordable house. And we're working really hard to make that happen. But it's a constant effort to keep improving in that

Unknown Speaker
number of people are pointing to CDC guidelines to I found this I went to their website says if an individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered own or in encampments to remain where they are. Cleaning encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and great connections with service providers, increasing potential for infectious disease spread. So was that taken into consideration?

Unknown Speaker
It was you you've read some of it, but the CDC guidelines, actually, there's a couple important parts of that. And we really do pay attention to the health based guidelines, this is all about trying to protect the health of everybody in our community. First, that is not generally recommended in very cold climates, it's very different. If you're talking about an encampment in Southern California through the winter versus one in Indiana, in fatal conditions can get so cold. So certainly weather is very important. And secondly, you did reference a couple other points. One is if there are not safe beds available, that's what the CDC recommends when there are safe beds available in our community. And it's really important. We want people to be safe. And it is it is not safe to be sleeping outdoors in an Indiana winter. And the second thing is this, this particular place in in seminary park that we're talking about, was not technically really an encampment, this was not people living there. Day in and night out, day in day out night in night out this was activity activity during the day, but generally there were not people there at night. So they were living someplace else and spending time in the in the in the park during the day. If we you know there are some encampments in the community, tucked away in places that where our people are literally living, that's what that is their residents. And I, I agree that we have to be very careful about taking away those places, unless there is a better place for somebody to live.

Unknown Speaker
We heard there still some about maybe 10 tenths or so overnight at the park was the enforcement for that one night only, or

Unknown Speaker
no, my information is that the the the tents are basically gone during the evening now as they should be. They are being replaced sometimes early in the morning, and people are using those which is allowed now under under the parks rules. And we're continuing to engage regularly with with individuals there to try to make sure they're getting the services they need. You know, it's it's also important for people to remember, there are homeless in the community. And every year there are many people who go through homelessness, but we work really hard as a community to help people get back to their homes, get back into housing, that's the key. And the folks using the parks, we also are working very closely with to make sure they're engaging with services that they need to deal with substance use disorder. We've had a lot of evidence of that happening. Drug Use at the park, helping people deal with mental illness challenges, to make sure we're connecting folks to services that can help them live the lives that they want to.

Unknown Speaker
It's kind of a follow up on what you just said. But does the campings enforcement get to the root of the problem though, the city previously vowed to end homelessness in the area by 2020. But the population of unhoused people has risen on top of that a couple of shelters have closed. So what is the city doing to not only find housing, but also provide enough for Bloomington to continue?

Unknown Speaker
Well, implicit in your question, and I totally agree is is the question of how to end homelessness. With homes with housing. That is how we end homelessness. And that ultimately is the policy of the City Housing. First, we work with our partners who share that policy. We've added hundreds of affordable units to help that we've we've opened emergency shelters, which are not homes, but there are emergency shelters to help people who don't have a home to go to. But that's not a long term solution. And we're working very closely with our partners in government and in the nonprofit sector and foundations and others corporations who help with that. But we're not where we want to be. I mean I look everybody in America, this is the wealthiest country in the world. Everybody in America ought to have a safe, decent, affordable home and we're not there. You know the federal government has cut Federal Housing support probably 50% in the last few decades, it's we don't have enough support and locals and we're working really hard to do the best we can. But we should have a national commitment that we can all help accomplish to say everybody should get to a home. It should be a human right.

Unknown Speaker
I know we're getting close on time. But I did want to get to the Supreme Court ruling today, Indiana Supreme Court ruling that the Indiana legislature overstepped its legal bounds in 2017, when it barred the city of Bloomington from annexing any part of Monroe County. That was through 2022. This was an appeal from a 2019. ruling. Your reaction to that since I haven't yet we haven't gotten a chance to talk to you about this yet and what happens next?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we are gratified the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with us and with the trial court it said the General Assembly the state legislature unconstitutionally passed a part of the budget bill that prohibited Bloomington and Bloomington only in our annexation efforts in the Supreme Court agreed with us that that is unconstitutional. The Indiana constitution does not let the legislature pass what's called special legislation that's focused on one jurisdiction or frankly one person or one company either. So we're very gratified with that took three and a half years. It's frustrating that it took so long it costs public money to do the annexation that got interrupted illegally, unconstitutionally. We're going to be figuring out what the next steps are. I've just barely read the opinion. And we've got lawyers who need to weigh in and look exactly what the options are going forward. But look at you know, I went into annexation because it had been 12 years since the city had grown its boundaries. cities need to grow their boundaries to include urbanized areas. It's now been 17 years almost since we did that, since it's taken so long to get through this. And we'll have to figure out what the next steps are and talk to lawyers talk to our county counterparts and other providers. But I am I am really glad that the Supreme Court stood up and said that was unconstitutional in the state legislature should not have done that. And it was illegal for them to do so.

Unknown Speaker
And it was about 10,000 acres the city wanted to annex, is this something that you still personally feel in favor for and want to move forward?

Unknown Speaker
Well, it's really important to recognize the annexation is a very detailed and orderly statutory process that we began you have to begin with the largest map that you can you can't grow the map in the process, you can only shrink it. So we looked at what are the what are some natural boundaries and outlines and we were in the middle of at least a five month process to do that. With the state with it with the City Council reviewing they had kicked they had dropped one area already and the boundaries were going to be debated and looked at and and I hope we're able to do that again relatively soon. But again, it's it's complicated. The state legislature is added new laws in this three and a half year period that are make life more complicated. So it's it's a bit of a frustration, but we will I do think cities should grow as their population grows in urbanized areas grow urbanized areas are well served by city government. That's why we exist in rural areas are appropriately served by county government. But we'll have to figure that out in the months ahead have already reached out to county officials and others to begin those conversations.

Unknown Speaker
So we're at the end of our time, but this is our last show of 2020 it's been quite a year. Thank you so much for for doing this. Any thoughts or last words for 2020? Well, Joe, I

Unknown Speaker
appreciate you sharing this time as well with us and with people 2020 has been a really challenging year at a personal level for many people, including our family at a community level at a household level, the economy, the of course the pandemic, but it's just been such a turn turning over of so many things so many challenging things we we will get out of it. We do you know that the evidence tells us these vaccines are really effective and will get us where we need to and I guess I just you know, let's close by thinking about let's let's move forward in the ways that we want to I've been talking about recover forward. We don't need to go backwards to where we were but let's climb out of this year move forward in a ways that improve economic equality and access for people that improve climate response for us as a community to improve our racial relations and, and, of course respond to the health epidemic. But let's not look backwards. Let's look forwards. 2020 one's going to be a different year. We'll have new challenges. But we're we've learned that we can actually adapt quickly so maybe we can make some progress on these other channels. too.

Unknown Speaker
All right. Thank you. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. And for those of you watching, you can still submit your questions to any of our four mayor's at news at Indiana public media.org. Thanks for watching.

Unknown Speaker
Have a good holiday Joe. Thanks, everybody.
Mayor Hamilton on the Zoom call

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton (Zoom)

Despite a coronavirus vaccine and lower county positivity rates, Hamilton says there's still a long way to go. And we talk about the decision to enforce the prohibition of overnight camping in city parks by those experiencing homelessness.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton addresses these issues and more during a Facebook Live Zoom event Tuesday. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU. Here are some highlights.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: So let's start with a COVID-19 update. Overall statewide, Monroe County has the second lowest seven day positivity rate at 7.3 percent. Of course, we have news the vaccine started arriving in Indiana Monday. But it's not time to let your guard down. I know right before Thanksgiving, you asked people not to share air with a different household. Are you asking the same for these upcoming holidays?

Hamilton: The bad news is, while there may be good, good indicators on some positivity rates, overall in Indiana and in our county, our community, the numbers are going the wrong direction. We're seeing case rates continuing to be way too high. We're seeing deaths in our county are actually now averaging two a day on our rolling average - we've never been there before until the last week or two. Hospitalizations are still worrying.

In regard to our city government employee numbers, we had 16 cases for eight months, then we had 16 cases in one month of November. And that's mostly spread through households. It's not happening at the workplace generally.  

Hren: The questions we've been getting into the newsroom is when do you expect Monroe County to receive the vaccine? And how will that roll out?

Hamilton: Indiana University Health as you may have heard, they've got their freezers there, they've been delivered, they're ready. They should be getting the vaccine vials any day, and they expect to begin vaccinations within a few days. I think Monday the 21st was the last date I heard as the expectation it could be a little earlier a little later. And I know once they get those vaccine vials, they're going to be trying to vaccinate as many people as quickly as they can, beginning with health care workers, direct health care workers, the heroes who've been on the front lines and then including some of our elderly in long term care facilities who are particularly vulnerable.

The vast majority of deaths are happening with older folks. And so trying to get them first, it'll move to first responders and others. And then gradually, as we get more vaccine, both types and amounts, it will extend to the wider public. And in the first quarter of 2021, I think we expect to have much wider opportunity for people to get vaccinated.

A photo of tents and overnight camping in Bloomington's Seminary Park.

Hren: Let's get to the last week's meeting to ban camping at city parks that ended up failing after public response. And then the city decided to enforce rules that prohibit after hours camping at city parks for those experiencing homelessness. Two things, but all happened last week. Why is all this coming to heads, what's the timing reasoning?

Hamilton: This has been an extraordinary year, of course, in so many ways. Millions of dollars from the private sector and the public sector have helped create more shelter beds, helped create programs to support food access, and housing access, childcare access, and mental services and health services, those kinds of things.

We've had more use of parks and we're trying to make sure that the parks are available to everybody. We've had some parks where there have been some people in really rough shape, who are who are dealing with a lot of challenges in their lives. And we've tried to, and have been reaching out extensively to people who use the parks during the day. To try to help we created a new program called Public Health in the Parks that actually put up tables of staffed public health experts.

Now, at the same time, for many years, we've had a prohibition against overnight sleeping in the parks. And that's been consistently upheld for for many years, and helping people find places to stay if they need places to stay. And, last week, there's certain behavior requirements, and we did look at and recommended a change to the parks rules to prohibit structures, if you will, in parks during the day because there was concern that it was interrupting everybody's use of the parks.

But after that decision, we continue to allow any structures in parks during the day. But we did move forward and say continue what we've done, which is you can't camp and sleep in parks.

A photo of a sign that says "Fight Poverty, Not The Poor."

Hren: So we spoke to one shelter that's full, I read a report about another shelter that's full and they weren't aware that this enforcement was coming. Why wasn't that being communicated to the shelters?

Hamilton: Actually I think there was a lot of communication with the shelters. I'm not sure if the word didn't get through and around to everybody. But you know, we've been meeting every day with folks in the parks and working very closely with our partners who provide shelters or other services. In fact, the night that the change was put into place Centerstone and professionals from some of the organizations were there.

It's really important I think for people to know also that we have empty shelter beds in the city that are available to use. Many of the people who are in the parks for long periods during the day are not homeless now. They're not there because they don't have a place to sleep but they're there to use the park during the day. Offers were made to transfer anybody who needed to go to a shelter of very small numbers said yes, the majority had other places that they have been living and will continue living now.

Let me also just say, look, as a mayor, I worry, I fear that we will lose people. We can have people in the Indiana winters who can die from exposure that has happened and it's critically important that we help people who don't have a place to sleep to have a safe, warm place to sleep.

READ MORE: Downtown Rally Addresses Bloomington Homelessness

Hren: A number of people are pointing to CDC guidelines for people experiencing homelessness. I went to their website and says if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Cleaning encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers, increasing potential for infectious disease spread. So was that taken into consideration?

Hamilton: It was - you've read some of it, but the CDC guidelines, actually, there's a couple important parts of that. First, that is not generally recommended in very cold climates, it's very different. If you're talking about an encampment in Southern California through the winter versus one in Indiana, fatal conditions can get so cold.

And secondly, you did reference a couple other points. One is if there are not safe beds available, that's what the CDC recommends when there are safe beds available in our community. And it's really important. We want people to be safe. And it is not safe to be sleeping outdoors in an Indiana winter.

This particular place in Seminary Park that we're talking about, was not technically really an encampment, this was not people living there. This was activity during the day, but generally there were not people there at night. So they were living someplace else and spending time in the park during the day. And I agree that we have to be very careful about taking away those places, unless there is a better place for somebody to live.

Bloomington annexation map

Hren: The Indiana Supreme Court ruled today that the Indiana legislature overstepped its legal bounds in 2017, when it barred the city of Bloomington from annexing any part of Monroe County. That was through 2022. This was an appeal from a 2019 ruling. Your reaction and what happens next?

Hamilton: Well, we are gratified the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with us and with the trial court. It said the General Assembly, the state legislature unconstitutionally passed a part of the budget bill that prohibited Bloomington and Bloomington only in our annexation efforts. The Supreme Court agreed with us that this is unconstitutional. The Indiana constitution does not let the legislature pass what's called special legislation that's focused on one jurisdiction or frankly one person or one company either.

So we're very gratified with that - took three and a half years. It's frustrating that it took so long it costs public money to do the annexation that got interrupted illegally, unconstitutionally. We're going to be figuring out what the next steps are. I've just barely read the opinion. And we've got lawyers who need to weigh in and look exactly what the options are going forward. But look at you know, I went into annexation because it had been 12 years since the city had grown its boundaries. Cities need to grow their boundaries to include urbanized areas. It's now been 17 years almost since we did that, since it's taken so long to get through this.

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