Dozens of speakers raised their voices Friday in opposition and in favor of ongoing restrictions imposed by the Riverside County public health officer stemming from the coronavirus emergency, as the Board of Supervisors considered whether to maintain the public health orders.
“Those who are afraid want to take away the rights of those who aren’t,” Ben Clymer told the board during public testimony. “Get the businesses open again. Stop the bureaucracy. Make a decision to help this county.”
Banning Mayor Daniela Andrade told the board it was “imperative to realize the damage that is being done to individuals and find a way to get people back to work.”
“The impacts of the coronavirus is less than one-tenth of 1% in Riverside County, yet 100% of the population is adversely impacted by the shutdown,” Andrade said. “Community members need to return to work.”
Attorney Joshua Neggar called the state government’s guidance on COVID-19 controls “a death sentence for Riverside County and businesses.”
“They’re purposefully using arbitrary metrics,” Neggar said. “Put less restrictive policies in place here.”
One speaker compared county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser to World War I-era Germany’s kaiser, or emperor, Wilhelm II, because of the health orders, which are more restrictive than the state’s mandates.
Other speakers praised the orders and Kaiser’s actions.
“We are not ready to go back to normal yet,” Benjamin Carranza said in telephonic comments to the board. “There is no solution to the virus. I lost an uncle to COVID-19. I want people to stay safe.”
The hearing began at 1 p.m., and by 5 p.m., more than 60 people had addressed the board. Another 30-40 were expected to speak before the hearing would be adjourned in the evening, after which the supervisors were expected to debate.
After the board returned from a brief recess, one speaker, identified only as Pete, held up the American flag while at the dais, and the audience spontaneously rose and began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The supervisors came out of their seats as well.
“I think we all needed that,” board Chairman Manuel Perez said.
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt was prepared to make a motion to summarily end the health orders, but Supervisor Karen Spiegel countered that more than 50 people had not had an opportunity to speak, and the meeting continued.
The board held a nearly nine-hour hearing Tuesday to receive 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 California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly on Thursday broadly outlined the changes under phase two of Newsom’s multi-point plan for reducing restrictions and restarting the state’s economy.
The changes do not add to the state mandates in place for residents conducting everyday affairs, but do call for workplace adjustments as businesses reopen. The county’s restrictions are still stricter.
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, Ghaly said.
Ghaly 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.
Perez and Spiegel originally proposed the county’s regulatory rollback, which would end requirements on social distancing, use of face coverings, ongoing limitations on playing golf, keeping schools closed 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.
Hewitt compared the debate to a discussion about “how to inflate the inflatable life raft, when there are already so many people drowning.”
Hewitt and Jeffries stopped wearing their face coverings Tuesday.
Hewitt denounced data that had been put before the public on the severity of the coronavirus, noting that the figures cited by Kaiser and other RUHS staff — projecting 1,000 virus-related deaths by May 1 — had been “greatly exaggerated.”
Hewitt’s sentiments were echoed by Sheriff Chad Bianco and Treasurer-Tax Collector Jon Christensen.
“I work with numbers, and none of the numbers from this pandemic have panned out,” Christensen told the board, adding that county revenues are tumbling.
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,” Bianco 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.”
Violating the health orders can result in misdemeanor charges and fines.
Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors advocated for 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,” Kors said.
The board granted Kaiser unfettered authority to issue public health mandates when it declared a local emergency on March 10.
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