Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to reopen parking lots at county parks and approved a plan to boost COVID-19 testing according to state guidelines.
Supervisor Don Wagner made the motion to reopen the parking lots for the parks, but parking lots for beaches will remain closed. Parks themselves have never been closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Why not beaches?” Board Chairwoman Michelle Steel asked.
Wagner said he wanted to avoid antagonizing Gov. Gavin Newsom, who ordered a shutdown of the county’s beaches but later worked out compromises to allow for active-use only.
“That’s in response to the concerns from folks in Sacramento,” Wagner said. “But we aren’t seeing the same hoops being asked of us to jump through in regards to the parks.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the south county cities with beaches in her district don’t want the parking lots reopened.
Events and activities will not be offered at the parks, Orange County CEO Frank Kim said. Opening the lots will just make it easier for residents to keep using the parks for hiking and exercise, he said.
The supervisors also voted to adopt California Department of Public Health guidelines for expanding COVID-19 testing and to direct county staff to ramp up efforts to test more residents. This comes as more tests have become available. The state updates its guidelines because of the availability of more tests.
The state has created two tiers for testing. Tier 1 applies to hospitalized patients, health care workers, first responders and social service employees whether they are sick or asymptomatic, residents 65 or older whether they are sick or not or anyone with chronic medical conditions that make them vulnerable to coronavirus.
The first tier also expands testing in skilled nursing and congregant facilities and for frontline workers in grocery stores and utilities.
The second tier is for lower-risk people who do not have symptoms.
Wagner questioned why the county should be ramping up testing when there does not appear to be a great demand for it.
“I’m not sure what this adds to our debate or how this helps out our citizens when we already have three times the number of tests available today” that are being used, Wagner said.
Supervisor Andrew Do, who is on the testing ad-hoc committee with Supervisor Doug Chaffee, said expanded testing will be particularly useful in reaching out to the “underserved communities” where the outbreaks are highest. Do said a UC Irvine study showed that Latinos in particular are being hard hit by the virus.
“Until now the testing for those communities has been very low,” Do said. “So this is more of a focus on our effort in terms of outreach.”
County officials have been recently offering testing in community clinics, Do said.
The supervisors rejected a motion to share $75 million from $554 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding with cities in the county.
Do argued for more oversight from the county in any spending that is doled out to the cities.
“I like the idea that we should look for ways to help small businesses, but it should be something that we as supervisors participate in and carry out the will of this board through the criteria that we set out,” Do said.
Bartlett warned that officials “need a detailed look at CARES Act funding” to make sure it is spent legally.
Do asked Kim and his staff to “come back with a plan,” because, “I’m not ready to vote on anything off the cuff.”
More than three dozen public speakers, most of whom did not wear face masks, implored the board to rebel against shutdown orders for businesses and schools.
The board agreed to teaming up with officials in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties to seek variances from the state’s requirements to reopen. County officials contend that some of the requirements, such as avoiding a COVID-19-related death for two weeks, is an impossible hurdle for the more populous urban counties.
“You’ve got Alpine County with 4,000 residents,” Bartlett said. “Well, with Orange County with 3.2 million residents we’re held to the same standards.”
Kim said county officials are working on a different look at the statistics to show how much the county has slowed the transmission of COVID-19 so they can ask for an exception on the death toll rule.
“We have to be ready to present what it is that we believe are appropriate metrics,” Kim said.
“Maybe it’s zero deaths in two days,’ Bartlett said. “But we need to put some realistic numbers and percentages together because people really want to get back to work … We need a plan that’s driven by public safety and health protocols so the public feels safe.”
Responding to calls for the county to relax the stay-at-home orders, Wagner said they cannot buck the state.
” The governor said if you don’t get in line he’s going to cut off emergency funds,” Wagner said. “Like it or not we do have to look at the state for some assistance. The governor has said to businesses that may try to open in defiance of his order, if you have a liquor license I’m going to pull it.”
Wagner added that Newsom “is threatening all those barbershops and salons” with a revocation of cosmetology licenses, “we’re hearing for up to three years.”
Wagner argued that he believes there are constitutional questions that can be raised about the governor’s authority in the pandemic, but he noted a federal judge in Santa Ana last week refused to grant a temporary restraining order lifting the governor’s beach shutdown order in Newport Beach.
“Your fight is with Sacramento,” Wagner said. “This regional approach (with fellow neighboring counties) is absolutely the way for us to get control back and wrest it from Sacramento and do the right thing.”