After record COVID week, some California counties to reverse reopening plans

Jun 27, 2020 | Cal Matters

In summary

As Gov. Gavin Newsom demands Imperial County return to sheltering-in-place, 14 other counties are on the state’s watchlist.

As COVID-19 cases in California surged past 200,000 and statewide hospitalizations continued to set all-time highs every day this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom started to tap the brakes today — urging especially hard-hit Imperial County to reinstate its stay-at-home order. 

At a press conference, Newsom said he is “committed to intervening” if county officials don’t renew the order.  

As Imperial and nearly all of the state’s 58 counties have moved toward reopening their economies, cases have soared, particularly in California’s southern and central regions. Now, some counties are starting to push the “pause” button on their plans to open hair salons, gyms, bars and indoor dining — including Marin and San Francisco. 

Public health officials blame the surge on outbreaks generated from social gatherings, as well as those in prisons and nursing homes. Massive protests against police brutality also may have played a role.

In addition to Imperial County, where county officials scheduled an emergency meeting tonight to discuss the governor’s request, 14 other counties have been placed on the state’s “watch list” because of their rise in COVID-19 activity: Contra Costa, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Stanislaus, Tulare and Ventura. 

The reasons vary – some counties such as Sacramento attributed their case spike to community gatherings; others cited increased testing, prison outbreaks or hospital transfers of COVID-19-positive patients from other counties where hospitals were full.

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Nearly 4,900 new cases and 79 new deaths were reported today, according to state public health data. More than 5,600 suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, according to the CalMatters tracker of state data, with about 27% needing intensive care. COVID-19 cases have risen about 41% in just the past two weeks. 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed today ordered a delay for a planned June 29 reopening of hair salons and barber shops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, museums, zoos, outdoor bars and outdoor swimming. On June 15, the day San Francisco reopened retail stores and outdoor dining, 20 cases were reported. Ten days later, 103 cases were reported.

“Our numbers are still low but they’re rising rapidly,” Breed said in a press release. Ironically, state officials had given San Francisco the go-ahead to reopen early today.

Contra Costa County health officials said they would “reevaluate” the county’s reopening timeline after seeing a 42% jump in hospitalizations in the past week. The county had planned to allow indoor dining and nail salons to reopen on July 1.

In Marin County, the planned June 29 reopening of gyms, nail salons, hotels, tattoo parlors, skincare services and massage services has been postponed, although hair salons and indoor dining will be allowed to reopen on that date. An outbreak at San Quentin state prison accounts for some of its recent COVID-19 cases. 

In contrast, some businesses may reopen within the next two weeks in Santa Clara County, which issued its stay-at-home order earlier than the state and has not yet applied for state permission to reopen sooner than statewide-guidelines, according to a video statement by county health officer Dr. Sara Cody.  

The COVID-19 surge has been most severe in Imperial County, a relatively rural area of about 181,000 people that shares a border with Mexico. The county’s hospitals are so overwhelmed that about 500 patients have been transported to hospitals in other counties, including Riverside. The rate of people testing positive for the novel coronavirus in Imperial County is about 23%, far higher than the state average of 5.6%.

Dr. Katherine Staats, medical director for the county’s emergency medical services agency, said some of the cases came from Mexicali, a Mexican town just over the border. “Every single day we continue to see our number continue to rise, and we continue to have challenges of resources both in our hospital and overall health care settings,” Staats said.

California’s move comes at the same time that the Republican governors of Florida and Texas — who had reopened their states early and enthusiastically — did an about-face amid soaring COVID numbers and ordered restaurants to cut capacity and bars to shutter.

In her video message, Santa Clara County’s Cody acknowledged the frustration of residents who have seen businesses and activities open in nearby counties, yet not their own. 

“But we must also ensure that when people engage in these activities, here and in surrounding communities, they are doing so as safely as possible and with proper guardrails in place,” Cody said. “All of us are safer when we stay home, and no activity can be made completely safe. Our success in this next phase depends on everyone’s faithful implementation of social distancing protocols, consistently wearing face coverings, and collectively following new norms of behavior that keep the spread of COVID-19 as low as possible. We are all in this together, as we have been throughout the pandemic.”

CalMatters reporters Rachel Becker and Ana B. Ibarra contributed to this story.

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