The Board of Supervisors will convene a special meeting Friday to reassess whether ongoing restrictions imposed by the Riverside County public health officer based on the coronarvirus pandemic are still necessary on the heels of standards announced by the governor’s office.
The board held a nearly nine-hour-long hearing Tuesday to receive public testimony regarding the restrictions’ impacts and weigh their value compared to the state’s mandates. The hearing ended without a vote for lack of consensus — and concerns that Gov. Gavin Newsom might make modifications that merit keeping local requirements in place.
Newsom and the California Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly, on Thursday broadly outlined the changes under phase two of the governor’s multi-point plan for reducing regulations and restarting the state’s economy, while stressing the virus is no less dangerous.
The changes do not add to the state mandates in place for residents conducting everyday affairs, but they do call for workplace adjustments as businesses reopen. The county’s restrictions are still stricter, and several supervisors on Tuesday signaled a desire to end the elevated regulations in favor of complying solely with the state’s requirements.
According to Ghaly, under the phase two guidelines, retailers, manufacturers and warehouses will be able to return to semi-normal operations while adhering to protective measures, including providing personal protective equipment to employees, namely gloves and face masks.
Social distancing requirements will be necessary, and with respect to retail outlets, they will initially only be able to service customers through pickups and deliveries — not in-store activity, the doctor said.
He said for phase two to expand and allow more businesses to open, counties will need to show COVID-19 testing involves 1.5 screenings per 1,000 residents, and that infections are down to 1 case per 1,000 residents in a 14-day period.
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt asked for the special board session to examine the state’s new guidelines and debate what to do with the county’s remaining emergency health orders, signed by county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser.
Board Chairman Manuel Perez and Supervisor Karen Spiegel originally proposed the regulatory rollback, which would end requirements on social distancing, use of face coverings, ongoing limitations on playing golf, keeping schools shuttered and barring short-term rentals.
Kaiser last week signed orders keeping the regulations in place until June 19.
Perez backed off his earlier support, opining that it would not be in the county’s favor to “abandon guidances” from the health officer and Riverside University Health System staff. He felt that the ongoing restrictions might fit “hand in glove” with whatever the governor proposed in his expanded multi-phase plan. Spiegel agreed.
Hewitt said he wanted to end the county’s restrictions, comparing the debate to a discussion about “how to inflate the inflatable life raft, when there are already so many people drowning.”
Hewitt and Supervisor Kevin Jeffries removed their face coverings during the Tuesday meeting. Jeffries said he generally supported ending the county’s restrictions.
“There are horrible tragedies for business owners and employees,” Hewitt said. “We are not gods of who opens and who doesn’t.”
Hewitt denounced data that had been put before the public on the severity of COVID-19, noting that the figures cited by Kaiser and other RUHS staff — projecting 1,000 virus-related deaths by May 1 — had been “greatly exaggerated.”
The supervisor’s sentiments were echoed by Sheriff Chad Bianco and Treasurer-Tax Collector Jon Christensen, both of whom advocated ending county-level restrictions.
“I work with numbers, and none of the numbers from this pandemic have panned out,” Christensen told the board.
The tax collector said county revenues are tumbling and the business community is steeped in fear.
Bianco, who spoke without a mask, told the board he was opposed to the “elimination of constitutional freedoms.”
“We need to rely on facts and data, not projections and fear,” the sheriff said. “The danger of the virus is significantly lower. The original projections that caused the health orders to be put in place have been proven wrong. This cannot be the new normal.”
Riverside-area salon owner Adrian Bermudez characterized the face coverings mandate and other county requirements as “medical tyranny.”
Many who addressed the board were not wearing face coverings, as still required by the public health officer’s mandate. Violating the health orders can result in misdemeanor charges and financial penalties.
“Wearing a mask spreads the message that this (virus) is dangerous,” Chris Nelson told the supervisors. “Stop operating under fear and operate under facts and statistics so that we can once again revive our freedom.”
About a third of the speakers, many of them affiliated with unions, defended the county’s restrictions.
Jurupa Valley Unified School District Superintendent Elliott Duchon told the board that Kaiser’s order keeping schools shuttered to June 19 was “an effective tool in stopping the virus.”
Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors praised face coverings, saying they will be needed as a protective measure when businesses start to reopen.
“I’m in favor of keeping the rules in place as more people are visiting businesses,” he said.
Newsom on Thursday chastised those who think the threat of the coronavirus has dissipated, noting that 92 more deaths were reported between Wednesday and Thursday.
“I’ll remind people that think, `Hey, the emergency’s over, we can go back to the way things used to be’ — I’ve heard some comments from people that are even in elected office saying that — tell that to 92 families that were destroyed because they lost a loved one to this virus in the last 24 hours,” Newsom said. “This by no stretch of the imagination is over. We want to contain this spread. We are making real progress in this state because you all practiced physical distancing, you abided broadly by the stay at home order, but we are not out of the woods.”
The board granted Kaiser unfettered authority to issue public health mandates when it declared a local emergency on March 10.
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