The Riverside County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is expected to vote on a proposed plan that targets more business reopenings throughout October, but potentially puts at risk $114 million in funding that the state could revoke for running afoul of its restrictions.
Currently, counties cannot reopen faster than the state allows nor can they issue more lenient guidelines for businesses.
Riverside County’s vote comes after vocal concerns from some of the supervisors and several local business leaders that the state-implemented orders and restrictions put in place to curb the spread of coronavirus are causing too much harm to the local economy.
This isn’t the first time a county has attempted to buck the California system; but in every previous case, local officials eventually adhered to state orders.
Public information officer Brooke Federico said Tuesday’s proposal was developed by the county executive office based on direction from the Board of Supervisors. It is a redrafted version of a plan first put forth by Fifth District Supervisor Jeff Hewitt at their Sept. 22 meeting.
“This county reopening plan takes into consideration the state’s existing guidance and reopening tiers, while also finding a path for reopening those businesses or activities that are not included in current guidance or tiers, and yet are very similar to activities or business that is already allowed,” Federico said.
The plan “seeks to provide a balanced approach to reopen our economy” with a new plan to boost public efforts and target dates to reopen more economic sectors “with due consideration” given to the state’s color-coded, four-tier system that debuted in August, according to a draft posted to the board’s agenda.
Of note to the Coachella Valley struggling hospitality industry, the plan would allow group meetings of local residents at 25% capacity or 100 people or less. That activity isn’t explicitly addressed by the state’s current tier system, according to its website. Those modifications are consistent with the current guidelines for restaurants in the red tier that Riverside County reached in September.
But authorizing new activity comes with a $114-million risk: The state has threatened to withhold or revoke funding for counties that go beyond what is allowed under its orders.
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While Federico said the plan fits within the state’s tiers, supervisors are also being briefed on the fiscal implications if the state were to think the county broke the rules.
The California Department of Public Health has not yet responded to a request from The Desert Sun about consequences faced by Riverside County if the plan is implemented.
If the plan is approved, the county will continue to encourage face coverings, physical distancing and hand-washing to slow the spread, Federico said.
It also comes with a Focused Community Action Plan that’s meant to further tamp down the spread of the virus with more public awareness campaigns and outreach focused on at-risk communities and businesses with the highest rates of transmission.
What is the county’s plan for reopening?
The proposed plan has a three-phase approach that adds some specifications and broader business activity compared to the state’s reopening levels.
The county is currently in the first phase of the proposal that encompasses the red tier: Restaurants with reduced indoor operations, places of worship, movie theaters, gyms and personal cares services are allowed, with modifications and capacity restrictions.
“Phase II” of the reopening plan would kick in with a target date of Oct. 13. That phase would allow group meetings and events with primarily local residents at 25% capacity or 100 people. That’s the same capacity allowed for indoor dining in the current red tier.
The proposal says the decision to advance to the next phase would be made by the county executive officer in their role as the director of emergency services with consultation from county public health staff, while considering the state structure.
“Phase III” has a target date of Oct. 27. At that time, wineries and family entertainment centers could open indoors. Bars, breweries and distilleries could open outdoors. Non-essential indoor office activity would also be allowed.
Under the state’s guidelines, those activities open in the orange tier, which is activated when the county has met that level’s criteria — one to 3.9 daily new cases per 100,000 residents and a 2% to 4.9% positivity rate for a seven-day average — for two weeks.
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The “Phase III” guidelines also allow wedding receptions to be held at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less, in line with guidelines for dine-in restaurants and cultural ceremonies.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for gatherings during the pandemic say to “prioritize attending outdoor activities over indoor activities and stay within your local area as much as possible.”
Across the country, weddings have continued to be linked to COVID-19 outbreaks. In Maine, a wedding with just 65 guests led to 176 COVID-19 cases and eight virus-related deaths.
What’s at risk if the county moves forward?
The state could penalize any county that fails to adhere to orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom or the California Department of Public Health by withholding or retracting funding.
About $114 million in funding is at risk for Riverside County, including funds that have already been received and outstanding funds for pandemic-related programs.
Some of the funds include money from the CARES Act ($28.1 million), the Great Plates Program, Project Home Key, Project Roomkey and money for public health epidemiology and lab capacity.
Additionally, the county could risk its eligibility for disaster funding. Sutter, Modoc and Yuba counties received letters from the California Office of Emergency Services that their own eligibility could be jeopardized after they acted to move ahead of the state, according to the Riverside County proposal.
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“(If the counties believe) there is no emergency, such that it can ignore the Governor’s Executive Orders or the State Public Health Officer’s directives, the county would not be able to demonstrate that it was extraordinarily and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” the letter stated, which was signed by Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci.
All three counties eventually adhered to state orders.
Newsom has called the state’s current framework “more stringent” but “more steady,” as it allows for modification based on spread of the coronavirus.
The state experienced a surge this summer following an initial reopening just before Memorial Day that allowed for more businesses to open than current guidelines. Four weeks after the holiday, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state jumped 67%, including a 45% rise in the number of intensive care unit beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, according to an analysis of state health data by The Desert Sun.
Proposal expected to receive favorable votes
Hewitt’s initial plan in late September received mixed responses from fellow supervisors, with V. Manuel Perez and Chuck Washington in opposition to the proposal.
Second District Supervisor Karen Spiegel told The Desert Sun by email Friday that while she is “very favorable” of the idea, she wanted to review the re-drafted plan further before commenting.
First District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries told The Desert Sun on Friday that he thinks the new plan is a scaled-down version of what was originally proposed due to “certain legal realities, significant financial implications and movement down the red tier.” But he said it was “pretty clear our future actions will remain in line with the state guidance.”
Hewitt said he’s been “absolutely flabbergasted” by the orders from the state over the past seven months, and praised the county’s efforts to control the spread of the virus.
Hewitt said more reopenings can be done safely, with people taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus while allowing more economic activity.
“There’s still lots and lots of people suffering,” he said.
Hewitt held a press conference on Sept. 28 that was streamed on Facebook Live to promote the “Open Cal Now” campaign. It’s a petition effort from a cohort Southern California politicians who want the state to ease up on its restrictions and allow more businesses to open.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco also spoke at the press conference, saying that government shouldn’t control what individuals do, like where they shop or whether they go to school.
According to its website, Open Cal Now is funded by the Committee That Cares, a group organized in Irvine. A few politicians in Orange and San Diego counties have also expressed support.
Melissa Daniels covers economic development, hospitality and local business in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at (760)-567-8458, [email protected], or on Twitter @melissamdaniels.
Nicole Hayden covers health in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at [email protected] or (760) 778-4623. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.
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