San Diego County spent more money on security than food for people sick with COVID-19
San Diego County officials spent more money on security guards at a COVID-19 hotel shelter than they did on food for people who were isolated there while sick, according to an inewsource analysis of invoices.
And newly obtained information shows the meals provided to quarantined guests came from restaurants that have been cited multiple times by county health inspectors for food handling and storage violations, in some cases potentially serving hazardous food.
These records, while incomplete, offer the clearest picture yet of who provided services and what it cost to operate the Crowne Plaza in Mission Valley — the main hotel used to temporarily house people who came in contact with the coronavirus and had nowhere else to isolate. Many were unhoused and struggling with mental illness or substance use disorders.
The expenses could also help explain a recurring theme throughout inewsource’s reporting on San Diego County’s troubled, now-defunct hotel program: Aggressive security guards and poor-quality food.
Crown Plaza guests, who were under a public health order to stay in their rooms, sometimes faced harassment and physical violence from security. At the same time, undercooked food, small portion sizes and unmet dietary needs meant some people went hungry. This was particularly difficult for those who were suffering with COVID-19 symptoms, according to a scathing review of the program.
In nearly two years, county officials paid Equus Workforce Solutions, the staffing agency that has faced scrutiny for its mishandling of the public health program, more than $103 million to run the Crowne Plaza. Invoices provided to inewsource show:
- The lion’s share — $26.3 million — was used to cover room and office charges.
- The cost for nursing was close to $15.2 million.
- More than $13.8 million went to security services, roughly $627,000 every month.
- It cost $9.5 million to keep hundreds of people fed, or about $432,000 a month.
In comparison, the annual budget for security and food at San Diego’s largest homeless shelter is roughly $2.1 million each, according to the San Diego Housing Commission.
County officials violated state law by withholding these expenses for more than five months. After inewsource obtained the records in March with the help of an attorney, officials spent the next three months refusing to answer questions about them and only decided to respond when told about the pending publication of this story. But the answers only raise more questions. Read them here.
County spokesperson Michael Workman said the monthly cost for food is based on hotel occupancy.
“When there were more guests, there were more meals and therefore higher costs. When there were fewer guests, there were fewer meals and therefore lower costs,” Workman said. “The cost to feed 546 people (in October) exceeds the cost of feeding 233 (in December).”
On the other hand, he added, security costs remain fixed, regardless of occupancy.
But according to a summary of expenses Workman provided, the original cost for security ballooned from $211,000 in July 2020 to more than $1.1 million by the end of last year.
Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher has touted his efforts to increase government transparency, but he did not respond to an interview request.
San Diego County started using the Crowne Plaza and other hotels at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials had two main goals: To isolate people who tested positive or came in contact with the coronavirus, and to protect people who were at-risk for developing severe illness if they did come in contact.
The program was the first of its kind, having served nearly 15,300 people, and has been celebrated for its success in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives. The isolation portion of the program ended in March, while the at-risk component ended this month.
With data, documents and dozens of interviews, inewsource has exposed an array of problems throughout the program during the past two years. After inewsource reported in summer 2020 that a guest at the Crowne Plaza had died by suicide, which wasn’t discovered for five days, county officials hired Equus to manage the day-to-day operation.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240.
But problems continued. A blistering evaluation of the Crowne Plaza’s operation would later say the county’s decision to place a staffing agency in charge of a public health program was like fitting “a square peg in a round hole.”
Conducted by San Diego State University, the evaluation said Equus was unqualified to run the program and employed poorly trained staff, who allowed gaps in services that may have led to overdoses and suicide. Among the most significant issues listed in the evaluation, right next to nursing and medication, was inadequate food — especially for those who were sick.
Staff refused to provide snacks and set limits on how much water each person could have. Toddlers lost weight because they weren’t getting proper nutrition.
Emmalee Cobb, a preschool teacher, told inewsource she stayed at the Crowne Plaza with her 2-year-old son after he tested positive for COVID-19 in November 2020. The single mom said she was sent there because a member of her household had underlying medical conditions.
It was a scary time, she said, and she was low on money, so it came as a relief to learn the hotel would provide three meals a day. But she quickly learned they didn’t have any kid-friendly options.
After complaining, Cobb said staff brought her toddler a salad and told her to “just try to offer it to him.”
“I said my kid’s not going to eat a salad,” she said, “and they’re like, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.’”
‘Food is a good investment’
Soon after the suicide death at the Crowne Plaza two years ago, county officials started looking for help. They wanted a company to run the entire program, providing daily checkups, three meals a day, medical services and on-site security, among other essentials.
The county picked Equus because it was the only company that applied for the job, according to SDSU’s final report, which focused on Equus’ handling of the Crowne Plaza.
County employees told SDSU “that under normal circumstances, many providers would likely have bid on this project but were perhaps unavailable to apply because they were coping with crises caused by the pandemic.”
The original contract called for $30 million but, after a few changes, officials decided to increase the contract — in the middle of SDSU’s evaluation into the company’s handling of the Crowne Plaza — bringing the total to $140 million. The entire program has cost more than $103 million as of April, records show. Officials anticipate having the total cost reimbursed by the federal government.
According to the contract, Equus is supposed to take the lead on operations and hire other companies to manage each aspect of the program, such as medical services, cleaning, security and food.
Among other things, security and food were consistently cited as issues from Crowne Plaza guests and staff, both to inewsource and SDSU.
While most guests who talked to SDSU said security guards were polite and made them feel safe, others recounted waking up to the sounds of guards screaming in the middle of the night. One heard a guard yelling at a guest that they “need to shut up and get in (their) room,” and another witnessed a violent altercation between two guards. Multiple guests have repeated similar stories to inewsource.
Equus hired unarmed guards from AllState Security Services, and they weren’t allowed to de-escalate situations with guests or intervene with illegal activity. Records at that time showed a high volume of calls to San Diego police about problems at the Crowne Plaza since the program started. About 1 in 10 of the calls were related to mental health, including suicide attempts and threats.
Equus acknowledged that ensuring adequate, respectful security had been problematic, SDSU’s report says. AllState didn’t respond to questions about the nature of security services it provided or requests for comment.
SDSU also found Equus fell short in providing care to guests who were suffering from COVID-19 symptoms, especially with inadequate and poor-quality food.
Most guests ordered food through DoorDash, Uber or other meal delivery services, according to the SDSU report. But even then, people experienced delays in Equus staff bringing the food that had been dropped off. It would sometimes arrive cold.
If ordering out wasn’t an option, as was the case for many of the unhoused or low-income guests, people would have to settle with whatever food was being offered that day.
One Equus employee told SDSU that the food vendor they relied on only had “certain kinds of food and they can’t take requests like a regular restaurant can.”
SDSU’s report touched on the inequality this created between the haves and the have nots.
“While guests could order food to be delivered to the hotel, some populations of guests in the hotel likely did not have access to additional funds or credit cards,” the report said.
Most of the guests who responded to a survey had positive comments.
“(The hotel) was good,” one person told SDSU. “I went in homeless, and it was great to have 10 days to shower, a place to sleep, and food … I appreciated having a place to stay.”
On the other hand, some guests went hungry because they were repeatedly given meals they were allergic to or couldn’t eat, and they were told their needs couldn’t be met. One guest said they kept receiving meat even though they don’t have molars. Another said they kept receiving ham sandwiches, even though they don’t eat pork.
A former Equus employee previously told inewsource that nurses told staff that toddlers at the hotel were losing weight because they weren’t getting adequate nutrition. She said Equus planned to continue feeding toddlers milk or menu items such as quesadillas and lettuce wraps until she reached out to the food vendor to provide meals more appropriate for children — chicken and wild rice with sweet potatoes and applesauce, which are easier for toddlers to consume.
When asked about lessons learned, one Equus employee told SDSU, “Be very selective on (the) food vendor. Put good effort into food. Food and health go hand in hand. Food is a good investment.”
A representative with Equus did not respond to requests for comment.
‘In violation of law’
Several hotels throughout San Diego were included in the county’s program — some were used for isolation, such as the Crowne Plaza, and others were used to protect unhoused, at-risk individuals.
To better understand where more than $103 million has gone, inewsource requested a full accounting of the county’s expenses for its COVID-19 temporary lodging program under the California Public Records Act in October.
But county officials refused to respond for five months. An attorney representing inewsource sent a letter to the county in January, insisting that officials hand over the records.
“The County evidently is of the position that it can take as long as it pleases to disclose public records. This position is in violation of law,” the attorney wrote.
In March, officials finally decided to hand over a summary of the program’s expenses, rather than a full accounting as requested. They provided a spreadsheet that lists categories of expenses at the Crowne Plaza per month, from July 2020 through the end of last year. Another spreadsheet representing the expenses for at-risk hotels in the same time frame appears to be incomplete.
Workman, the county’s spokesperson, proceeded to deflect and outright ignore questions about the expenses. He only decided to respond after inewsource told him about the publication of this story, and provided a set of invoices through April. But the invoices appear to be incomplete and don’t match the numbers from the county’s own summary.
For example, when asked what kind of expenses would fall under the “equipment” category in the invoices, Workman only said it included things like technology and furniture. And an invoice from August 2020 says Equus didn’t charge the county for any food costs, even though the summary of expenses that Workman provided shows the county gave Equus more than $63,000 for food.
Workman said the county’s oversight on program expenses included reviewing monthly invoices and comparing costs against the approved budget.
inewsource attempted to find out what companies were involved and what services they provided, but Workman has consistently refused to provide a list of subcontractors, initially saying a list doesn’t exist. He eventually sent a list that included a medical doctor, two hotels and six companies, including restaurants, security, laundry and cleaning services. It’s unclear how much each has been paid or how long they were involved with the program, but the list is from April.
Both restaurants involved with the county’s program have been cited by health inspectors this year. Crust Kitchen, which touts itself as a made-from-scratch kitchen in Mission Valley, has been cited eight times since 2019, including a major violation in January for failing to maintain proper holding temperatures.
Steve Abbo, the owner of Crust Kitchen, said health inspection violations are just part of the restaurant business, but what sets him and his staff apart is that they act within 24 hours to correct any issues.
The problem is, Abbo said, inspectors check holding temperatures in the middle of the day, after they’ve already had a breakfast and lunch rush. It’s tough for refrigerators to maintain temperatures after constant opening and closing, he said.
“The quality of the food I was providing was amazing,” Abbo said, adding that he has been working with the county on this program since it started in March 2020. “I’m in the restaurant business and I have a reputation — we care about the food quality and our customers.”
Not everyone will be satisfied with every meal, he said, but the overwhelming majority of feedback was positive. When it came to complaints about poor quality, though, he said it must have been about another food provider. Abbo said he took pride in the meals that were provided to guests at the Crowne Plaza.
“If it was a member of our family who was staying in these hotels, I’d want to make sure we provided the best meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said, “and that’s the way I run my business.”
The other meal provider is The Bistro, a Marriott hotel restaurant in Old Town. It was also cited in January for not following proper food storage and cleaning procedures, which are considered minor violations. Interview requests with this restaurant went unanswered.
When asked about the quality of food and security services, Workman ignored questions about the health inspections. But he said security guards were only supposed to patrol, monitor and surveil the hotels, and referred any questions about security to Equus.
‘I barely slept’
It was a scary time, said Cobb, the preschool teacher. Much was still unknown about the coronavirus at the time and her baby boy had been suffering with a cough for roughly three days. She said they had arrived at the emergency room by ambulance before they were ordered to isolate at the Crowne Plaza in November 2020.
“But it was more scary having to go somewhere and not have people that I know around me that I can count on,” Cobb said.
The stress only grew when she couldn’t get her son to eat any of the food provided, she said. One time, she said, hotel staff gave her toddler what appeared to be ribs — she couldn’t really tell what it was. Either way, her son “wanted nothing to do with it,” she said.
Cobb called the front desk and asked if they had anything else available for small children, and she was told that she could order food and have it delivered to the hotel. A staff member would then bring her delivery and leave it outside her door.
“But I have to spend money,” Cobb said, “which, you know, I’m a single parent. I didn’t have the funds at the time to do that.”
Luckily, her dad and stepmom were able to bring food. But it still “took maybe an hour to bring it up to our room. So, it was cold by the time they got to us.”
Cobb said she couldn’t wait to leave. Despite the on-site security, she didn’t feel safe.
One night during her stay, a person staying one floor below her started opening and slamming their door as they screamed at the top of their lungs, she said.
“It made me really nervous, like I barely slept because I was scared,” Cobb said. “I made sure I was up watching my son and just making sure nothing could happen. Because it was scary.”
The results of wastewater testing are showing a dramatic increase in the presence of the COVID-19 virus in San Diego County.