Riverside County officials have outlined a plan starting after Labor Day to gradually reopen businesses and places of worship forced to close following a spike in coronavirus cases.
In an Aug. 12 letter to state public health officials, County Executive Officer George Johnson said the three-phase plan, which needs state approval, builds on steps the county has taken to fight the spread of COVID-19. The letter also spells out the strain the virus and the ensuing economic shutdown has put on county residents and public services.
“The intent of this Advocacy Platform is to actively engage with (the California Department of Public Health) on an earnest discussion of the steps that we can take together to achieve positive outcomes and plan for the gradual re-opening of our society and economy in a measured and safe way, one which balances the many aspects of public health needs that we collectively are tasked to address,” Johnson wrote in the letter.
Johnson outlined the county’s “Community Action Plan,” launched July 24, to contain the virus, including a “Masks for Medicine” campaign to distribute 10 million free masks to residents.
Under the county’s reopening plan, starting Sept. 8, dine-in restaurants, wineries, and breweries; places of worship; non-essential indoor offices; and “personal care businesses” — hair salons, nail salons and tattoo shops, for example — would be allowed to reopen in accordance with state COVID-19 guidelines.
The second phase, starting Sept. 22, would give the green light to wedding receptions, group meetings and events, and indoor shopping malls. Phase three, starting Oct. 6, would reopen gyms, movie theaters, and bars.
Health metrics would be measured to see if it’s safe to move forward with each reopening phase.
“Having a plan which set target dates and expectations will provide a tangible goal to our residents and create a groundswell toward achieving the realistic metrics within the 30-day Timeframe,” Johnson wrote. “A commitment from the state will provide clarity to our residents that the sacrifices being asked of them will have a connected purpose to both achieve a more stable and sustainable spread of the disease and to reopen portions of our society and economy.”
The California Department of Public Health did not respond Monday, Aug. 17 to a request for comment on the letter. Since the state ordered the current restrictions, the county’s reopening plan needs Sacramento’s approval.
It’s not the first time the county has pushed to reopen businesses stunted by a statewide stay-at-home order and other steps imposed to limit COVID-19 infections. After the county got Sacramento’s permission to join a reopening fast track, malls, retail stores and dine-in restaurants got the go-ahead to reopen in late May, followed by a wider scope of businesses as the rise in cases and hospitalizations leveled off.
Cases in the county and throughout California spiked after Memorial Day, prompting county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser on June 30 to order bars to close.
A day later, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a wide range of businesses in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list — including Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties — to shut down indoor operations, including indoor dining, to counter a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations.
When it comes to confirmed cases, the current picture is a little murky.
Riverside County’s numbers dropped in early August as the state encountered problems with its reporting system, and have risen again to near peak July levels as that backlog gets cleared out, but it’s unclear how many of the new cases being reported each day are recent.
Information on hospitalizations and deaths was not affected by those same problems. Hospitalizations are down significantly — for the first time since June, fewer than 300 people are currently hospitalized with coronavirus in Riverside County. Death rates, however, are still high, with about 13 deaths being reported per day in August, versus an average of less than eight per day in July.
The county, like the rest of California, also is subject to a statewide face covering mandate issued June 18, a little more than a month after the Board of Supervisors directed the county’s public health officer to rescind his countywide face covering order.
Johnson’s letter includes charts and figures showing how the county’s economy and public health have worsened since the pandemic started.
From January to May, the county saw a 16% increase in drug overdoes compared to the same period in 2019, one chart read. The county lost more than 100,000 jobs in March and April, close to 40% of renters aren’t confident in their ability to pay next month’s rent and the number of county residents served by CalFresh — food stamps — grew 22% between March and June.
“We must work on a way to gradually reopen our economy and society while still maintaining the focus on safe practices for our long-term future,” county spokeswoman Brooke Federico said via email.
“The current environment of closures was never meant to be long-term, and is not sustainable, so we need to engage the state in a conversation of how we gradually, and safely, scale that back.”
Brandon Brown, a UC Riverside associate professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health, has reservations about the county’s reopening plan.
“We had the highest peak number of deaths due to COVID-19 in the past 2 weeks in Riverside County,” Brown said via email. “This is not a great impetus for pushing a phased reopening plan, particularly one accelerated every 2 weeks where we would not be able to see the impact of each reopening phase.”
He added: “Congregating large numbers of people indoors without adequate physical distancing as in restaurants, houses of worship, weddings, movie theaters, and bars will lead to the spread of infection. We have already moved to reopen and had to step back and re-close due to inadequate preparation.”
By having a phased-in reopening approach, “there will be more opportunities along the way to assess the effects of the reopening before proceeding further,” Federico said.
“We also note that the second round of closings started in early July. This plan would take us into early October, at least 90 days, before we return to where we were prior to July 2 when the latest shutdowns were ordered … the county is committed to providing guidance and training to our business community to help them reopen with proper safety procedures in place.”
The county also wants the state to change its standards for positivity rates, or the percentage of county COVID-19 tests that come back positive. Right now, anything above 8% lands a county on the state watch list; the county wants that changed to 14%.
Federico said there’s been a greater focus “although not as much in Riverside (County)” on testing people with COVID-19 symptoms.
“In those cases it can be expected that the positivity rate will be higher,” she said, adding that asymptomatic people are less likely to re-test, which also boosts the rate since there’s more testing of those with symptoms.
Staff Writer Nikie Johnson contributed to this report.