Riverside County Friday was given approval by the California Department of Public Health, with the governor’s blessing, for an “accelerated” move into reopening economic sectors impacted by the coronavirus emergency, permitting restaurants to again offer in-person dining and retail outlets — including malls — to provide in-store services.

“People can start living instead of being afraid,” Supervisor Karen Spiegel said during a news briefing at the County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside. “I’m looking forward to seeing things flourish again. Every one of our businesses is extremely important, and they can open safely, responsibly and successfully.”

According to Spiegel and Board of Supervisors Chairman Manuel Perez, the state health department and governor’s office reviewed the county’s request for a “regional variance” based on its “Readiness & Reopening Framework,” which the Board of Supervisors approved on May 12.

The blueprint contains a series of recommended guidelines that businesses may follow to resume operations in a way that protects customers and employees from exposure threats.

Recommendations include ongoing use of social distancing, potential use of face coverings in confined spaces and utilization of glass or other barriers to reduce interpersonal contact.

Perez said the CDPH and governor’s staff were impressed with the 33-page framework, which additionally outlines how the county will continue to expand COVID-19 screening and preserve capacity for hospitals to handle any sudden rise in patient caseloads, which are currently flat or declining.

“I am very proud and excited Riverside County received (a) regional variance,” the board chairman said. “It’s because of the precautions we took early on and our constituents for the sacrifices they’ve made. It’s important that we continue to protect the health or our residents and economy.”

The county had been in stage 2 of the governor’s four-stage de-regulation plan to free up the private sector following his executive orders in March that effectively forced untold numbers of businesses to close their doors or severely curtail operations, if they did not fall into the so-called “essential” category.

Under stage 2, retailers have been permitted to offer pickup or delivery services, and warehouses and manufacturers have been allowed to operate with safeguards in place. With the regional variance, the county is now in what’s considered “stage 2.5.”

In stage 3, theaters, libraries, museums, bars and lounges can open their doors without fear of state penalties, while the final phase will remove barriers to convention centers, sporting venues and concert halls.

Orange and San Bernardino counties were seeking the same variance from the state. San Diego County’s request was granted on Wednesday night.

“We are going in phases, and now we’re going to the next level,” Spiegel said.

She said it was incumbent on businesses to develop safety protocols that either align with the county’s recommendations, or the state’s, to ensure operations are secure with the virus still present.

“You make the decision. Be responsible,” Spiegel said. “Life goes on, but help prevent the spread of germs.”

County Transportation & Land Management Agency Director Juan Perez said that the accelerated reopening also applies to schools that show they have made modifications to observe safety measures, and swap meets.

“This is a major step forward,” the TLMA head said. “We need to get the economy going again. We need to get people back to work again.”

He said the county’s Readiness & Reopening Framework guidelines are being polished all the time, with assistance from the recently formed Economic Recovery Task Force, and updates are available on the county’s website for proprietors and the public to view: www.countyofriverside.us/.

According to Riverside University Health System researcher Dr. Geoffrey Leung, the countywide hospitalization rate for COVID-19 cases has been flat for the last few weeks, remaining below 200, while the “positivity rate” from coronavirus screenings generally has been 2 to 4%, figures that did not raise red flags.

RUHS data show nearly 96,000 county residents have been tested for COVID-19 in the last two months, with 6,464 documented infections and 290 deaths. There have been 4,180 documented patient recoveries.

The so-called “doubling time” for infections, or when the numbers increase 100% — a key metric pointing to whether a contagion is moderating or worsening — is now about three weeks, according to RUHS. A doubling time of seven days is considered severe.

Leung asked residents to continue getting tested, primarily to protect “vulnerable populations” that are at higher risk.

Board Chair Perez plans to convene a public appearance with other elected officials at the Indio Fairgrounds Tuesday to promote wider testing.

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