The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Friday to rescind all but one component of a series of restrictions imposed by the Riverside County public health officer stemming from the coronavirus emergency, removing potential penalties that residents would have otherwise faced for violations.
“We’re not achieving the greater global fight (of reopening the economy),” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said.
“But let’s take a victory tonight, and then figure out how to push back against the governor, who has incredible power. This is about personal freedom and personal responsibility.”
The 5-0 vote followed almost six hours of public testimony at the County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside, where a previous hearing on the same proposal was held Tuesday, spanning roughly nine hours.
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt called for the special meeting going into the weekend to attempt to advance a rollback of county-level regulations to align with only state mandates, anticipating that Gov. Gavin Newsom would establish a relaxation of requirements for businesses to open.
Hewitt was appalled by Newsom’s announcement Thursday that a gradual loosening of controls would move ahead only if counties achieved specific criteria.
“The governor’s benchmarks are ridiculous,” Hewitt said. “How do you negotiate with someone who sets goals like this? The restrictions have become about him, and the state has ways to make life miserable.
“I feel the pain and fear of all those who are locked down. I think we should get rid of all the governor’s restrictions. We have the moral authority. I think we defy him. You cannot negotiate with craziness.”
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.
Top on the agenda was a requirement for counties not to have a COVID-19-related death in the previous 14 days.
“I feel the governor’s goals are unattainable,” board Chairman Manuel Perez said, and the other supervisors agreed.
However, Perez, along with Jeffries and Supervisors Karen Spiegel and Chuck Washington, believed that eliminating the lion’s share of county-level public health mandates would be a positive step forward.
“The businesses in this county should not wait for government, but we have to,” Spiegel said.
Spiegel made a motion to end requirements on social distancing — mandating a six-foot buffer between everyone in public — using face coverings, limitations on playing golf, keeping higher education institutions closed and barring short-term rentals.
County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser signed the health orders establishing the requirements in late March and early April, and he alone re-implemented them last week.
Violating the orders raised the prospect of misdemeanor charges and fines.
Only part of an order was severed from the motion — keeping kindergarten through 12th grade schools closed until June 19, which remains in effect. Spiegel and Perez were behind keeping that requirement for clarity.
Jeffries submitted an addendum titled “The Safe & Accelerated Reopening of Riverside County,” which laid out “best practices” for businesses and residents to consider following in the future.
The addendum contained only guidelines, not requirements, including a “strong recommendation” for the continued use of face coverings and other protective gear in confined spaces.
Hewitt was initially opposed to joining his colleagues because he hoped the board would combine in a joint message that “enough is enough,” effectively stating that businesses should open their doors and ignore Newsom’s latest stipulations.
Jeffries and Washington argued that there would be a time and place for challenging Newsom’s authority, but the county wasn’t at that point, and Hewitt relented.
The issue of discarding the county’s public health directives and contending with the state’s regulations fomented passions on both sides.
“Those who are afraid want to take away the rights of those who aren’t,” Ben Clymer told the board. “Get the businesses open again. Stop the bureaucracy. Make a decision to help this county.”
Banning Mayor Daniela Andrade said 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.
One speaker compared Kaiser to World War I-era Germany’s kaiser, or emperor, Wilhelm II, because of the health orders, which were more restrictive than the state’s mandates.
Other speakers praised the orders.
“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.”
Close to 100 people addressed the board.
One man, 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.
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 Riverside University Health System staff — projecting 1,000 virus-related deaths by May 1 — had been “greatly exaggerated.”
Hewitt’s sentiments were echoed Tuesday 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, with the likelihood of $100 million in losses in the current fiscal year.
“We need to rely on facts and data, not projections and fear,” Bianco said. “The original projections that caused the health orders to be put in place have been proven wrong. This cannot be the new normal.”
Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors advocated for face coverings, saying they will be needed as a protective measure when businesses start to reopen.
The board granted Kaiser unfettered authority to issue public health mandates when it declared a local emergency on March 10.