Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said Monday local law enforcement shouldn’t try to prevent businesses from reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, as long as they adhere to guidelines the county approved last week.
But fellow supervisors balked at the suggestion, noting that the guidelines do not supersede state orders and are only advisory in nature, providing a framework for the reopening of businesses once health orders are relaxed or lifted.
The guidelines were developed by an ad hoc committee headed by Wagner and Orange County Board of Supervisors Chair Michelle Steel. But since the board unanimously approved them last week, the guidelines have generated some confusion among businesses.
Nomads Canteen in San Clemente opened for business over the weekend, prompting a visit from the Orange County Health Care Agency, which issued a warning to the owner.
Wagner said Monday that warning ran counter to the county’s guidelines.
“The county of Orange has guidelines that we believe are scientifically sound and medically appropriate, and so we’re encouraging our businesses to abide by our guidelines while the state orders remain in effect,” Wagner said. “It’s going to be up to the governor whether he lifts the stay-at-home orders.”
Wagner has been a vocal proponent of allowing businesses to reopen and lifting health restrictions due to the coronavirus.
“Our hospital rates … are still better than surrounding communities,” Wagner said. “And we don’t urge our residents to do anything reckless, but it’s time for them to live their lives again.”
He suggested that if the state leaves stay-at-home orders in place, the state can send the California Highway Patrol or the National Guard to enforce it.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said, however, that when she voted for the guidelines last week, “My understanding was that the county was not recommending that any business overstep the state order, but that businesses could start getting prepared to open utilizing those guidelines that were produced at the meeting.”
Supervisor Doug Chaffee said Wagner’s comments are “essentially saying if you want to open up and violate the law we’re not going to do anything about it. I’m sorry to hear it.”
Chaffee said that when proposing the guidelines last week, Wagner “was very careful to point out” they don’t supersede the state’s orders.
“Now to say, `who cares?’ — that’s disappointing,” Chaffee said. “My intent in voting for it was to put out guidelines to help us get ready to open up, but that businesses not essential were still not essential. We’ll get there eventually.”
Supervisor Andrew Do concurred, saying the guidelines “are advisory practices that we have in place when we get permission from the state to reopen our economy. The document itself recognizes the supremacy of state law over county regulation in terms of our health order, so we defer to the governor and the practices articulated on the state level.”
Do said he supported the actions Health Care Agency officials took in response to the reopening of Nomads Canteen.
“I felt the Health Care Agency handled that incident properly,” Do said. “If we are to stay true to the business guidelines that the board voted on then how HCA handled the situation over the weekend was completely proper.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that the state later this week will issue new guidelines allowing “lower-risk” retail businesses to reopen with operating modifications, such as offering only curbside pickup.
Newsom, without naming Orange County specifically, said in his media briefing Monday there was “one county” he was “very impressed with” in a re-opening plan it submitted to the state.
“That’s the spirit of what we’re looking for,” Newsom said. “We just need a more formal process.”
The governor noted there “may be some unfortunate consequences” for businesses that reopen prematurely. He noted that the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control department visited 81 restaurants and bars that had reopened, and all but one was shut down.
“There’s no reason to do that,” Newsom said of eateries reopening, “without the expectation that the public health officials and agencies will do what they can to continue to get people to do the right thing.”
Chafee said the most important aspect of ensuring a safe reopening of the economy includes a comprehensive coronavirus testing program.
“The governor has said there are stages for us to go from one to two, and the key to that is testing, contact tracing and follow up,” Chaffee said. “If we can say we’re there then that’s different, but I don’t know that we’re quite there yet, but we’re sure trying to get there.”
Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said she backs the governor’s reopening plan, as well as the reopening of Laguna Beach’s and San Clemente’s beaches.
“The governor’s announcement about the partial reopening of our economy with some modifications to ensure public health is a step in the right direction,” Bates said. “California is flattening the COVID-19 curve and we are building the infrastructure necessary to meet the key measures needed to eventually reopen the entire state.
“His announcement to reopen some of Orange County’s beaches in a safe manner is also another positive step. I am glad he is listening to the concerns that many OC residents and I have raised regarding his punitive action last week. The controversy of that action could have been avoided had he first reached out to local officials to get their input.”