Update 4/1: According to an April 1 release, OES was advised that the California Conservation Corps is replacing the California National Guard on missions to free up the Guard for other logistical lifts needed in response to COVID-19. Ten personnel began assisting the Community FoodBank on April 1.
At a remote March 31 meeting, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to call on the National Guard for humanitarian support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Supervisors Anthony Botelho, Jim Gillio, and Mark Medina voted “yes,” while Supervisors Jaime De La Cruz and Peter Hernandez voted “no.”
Office of Emergency Services (OES) Manager Kris Mangano said Community FoodBank requested five volunteers to assist with food distribution efforts on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 10 volunteers on Fridays.
“The National Guard’s men and women do not carry weapons, they are not wearing masks,” Mangano said. “They provide order and structure, bring assurance and confidence during this very unsure time.”
According to a March 31 release from the county, the National Guard will assist with sorting, packing and food distribution at Community FoodBank on April 3. The National Guard has a duty post at the Hollister Airport at the National Guard Armory.
Though County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa has the authority to call on the National Guard during an emergency without the board’s approval, he said at the meeting that it was important for him to get supervisors’ input and to explain why the county is calling on the National Guard.
Espinosa said the county had been working on this for a week.
“We just wanted to share with the board what the National Guard was going to be utilized for moving forward,” Espinosa said.
If the county needed an additional food distribution site because of increased need, Mangano said the National Guard could assist with staffing. She said the food bank has experienced congestion issues since transitioning to drive-thru food distribution.
Mangano said OES reached out to Santa Cruz County for input on how they are utilizing the National Guard. Reading from a report from Santa Cruz County, Mangano said the National Guard assisted in distributing food to 1,900 cars in four hours at the county fairgrounds, serving 2,400 households.
“They felt the National Guard provided an invaluable resource helping them provide a critical service to their residents,” Mangano said.
Supervisors Hernandez and De La Cruz questioned whether assistance from the National Guard was necessary. Hernandez voiced concerns about where the National Guard would be housed and if their presence could increase the risk of spreading the virus.
“I’m just curious if this is too much in our community. Do we really need it?” Hernadez said, adding that staffing could be dealt with by community volunteers because the food bank was just handing out food. He also said calling on the National Guard would send a message to local nonprofits that San Benito County does not want their help.
De La Cruz echoed Hernandez’s comments about community volunteers and said that it was unnecessary to expose members of the National Guard to COVID-19 or possibly have them bring it into the community.
“I’m not ready to accept that because the next phase is, you know, martial law, and I just don’t want that to happen, and I don’t want that perception,” De La Cruz said.
Trying to clarify, Mangano said that was not the order from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“I don’t care what the governor says,” De La Cruz said. “I’m just giving you what my opinion is and my opinion is that I don’t want to see them in San Benito County, and prefer that the members of the community help out and pitch out [sic], and let’s all work together.”
De La Cruz added he would support receiving services from the National Guard if other needs arise, but not just for the food bank.
Supervisor Medina said Hernandez and De La Cruz were sending mixed signals by first telling people to shelter-in-place and then advocating for them to volunteer.
“The whole idea here is to stay home, let these professionals [who are trained] for this stuff,” Medina said. “Let’s take advantage of this and alleviate some of the stress from our own people and let the professionals that do this day-in and day-out work on this.”
In his statement of support for calling on the National Guard, Supervisor Gillio also addressed the comment about martial law.
“As we know, an earthquake and any type of natural disaster, the National Guard has the ability to help in humanitarian crises,” he said. “This is not enforcement. This is not martial law. [I’m] disappointed that that even came up.”
Gillio also said that San Benito County desperately needed assistance and to keep residents in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.