The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday in favor of a self-directed public health deregulation plan that provides avenues for Riverside County economic sectors to reopen, but adheres to state guidelines on coronavirus mitigation and requires working with the California Department of Public Health on criteria for safely reopening some venues.

“We’re not fully open today,” said Supervisor Karen Spiegel, who joined Kevin Jeffries, Manuel Perez and Chuck Washington in voting for the plan. “We’re still going right along with the state (on health safety measures).”

The key difference between the county plan and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s color-coded tiered system is that the county will no longer recognize a specific formula that qualifies a business sector to reopen. Instead, the board has authorized county CEO George Johnson, in consultation with Riverside University Health System staff, to make rolling interpretations of when entities are clear to return to modified operations.

The CEO could opt to continue to view the state metrics as fundamental to loosening regulations, or not.

Jeffries noted that the county has taken a light touch on enforcing the state’s mandates concerning business and church closures, and the supervisors’ action effectively removes the county from a state enforcement role.

“Cities can (still) proceed with enforcement,” Jeffries cautioned. “And businesses should know that if they don’t adhere to state guidelines, an employee can complain to Cal OSHA. So businessman or woman, make your decisions.”

Both he and Spiegel pointed out that many entities need a state-issued license to legally operate.

“If you have a state license and you’re going against the state, we cannot help you,” Spiegel said.

Supervisor Jeff Hewitt introduced the reopening concept on Sept. 22, and he ended up being the sole vote in opposition. The supervisor expressed concern that if the target dates he had originally proposed for clearing sectors to resume operation were removed, it would dilute the message that the county had set near-term goals that could be achieved.

His three-phase plan called for the county to support reopening virtually all sectors by the first week of November.

“We don’t need the state, which knows nothing about Riverside County,” Hewitt said. “We can do the things we need. We have that ability. This proposal gives us the ability to (bypass the state’s) one-size-fits-all approach.”

Because pockets of the county are experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases, Hewitt and Jeffries voiced concern that the CDPH could recommend that the county be moved back into the most restrictive “purple tier” from the less restrictive “red tier,” into which it was placed two weeks ago. The re-designation would mean the threat of businesses closing down again.

The county’s plan removes the tiered structure as the pivotal decision-making tool. It will instead be left to the CEO to interpret data and the county’s response. The board can also direct the CEO to take action. “These are hard decisions,” Johnson told the board. “We want our businesses to open up and people to go back to work.”

Theoretically, a countywide reopening of all private sector operations could happen any time with the Executive Office’s support, but the timeline was unclear following the board vote.

Perez asked specifically for the CDPH to work with the county in ironing out criteria for convention centers and other large meeting halls for wedding receptions and cultural celebrations to reopen.

Hewitt had wanted the openings to occur under either Phase II or Phase III of his plan, which also called for bars, breweries, wineries, “non-essential” offices and family entertainment centers to be given a green light to reopen on Oct. 27, barring a serious threat of a major upswing in coronavirus cases.

It was not immediately clear how the Executive Office will announce the county’s support for reopening venues.

The governor’s office deferred to the CDPH for a response to Hewitt’s proposal, and agency spokesman Ali Bay told City News Service that the state is holding to the tiered system, which only permits jurisdictions to “impose policies that are more strict than the state’s blueprint,” not recognizing an independent relaxation of restrictions.

According to the Executive Office, by taking an independent path, the county may stand to lose $114 million in allocations due from the state, including money for the Homekey homeless mitigation programs and additional federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act funding.

Hewitt and Jeffries doubted the state would take action.

“If there’s proof of a direct threat from Sacramento, I’d like to know about it,” Hewitt said. “We’re drowning right now. Businesses are lives and livelihoods. How much money are we losing every week?”

Jeffries said he did not see the plan “causing any rifts with anybody, any place.”

The majority of speakers who addressed the board backed the county plan, with mostly union workers on the county payroll criticizing it.

“The cost of this reopening could be much greater than the benefit,” Nicole Holt told the board by phone. “We can’t reduce case numbers if we open sooner than recommended.”

Riverside resident Loren Dean told the board Newsom had been crafting arbitrary reopening formulas since March.

“Every time you jump through the hoop, he just adds another,” Dean said. “The color-coded plan has no end in sight. You cannot trust Sacramento. Over and over again, you’ve been had.”

Andrea Davis said she found the nattering by government officials absurd.

“There’s a sickening lack of personal responsibility in this country,” she said. “People feel spoiled and entitled. Grow up. Open our businesses so we can pay our bills.”

Several people referenced successful court challenges in Michigan and Pennsylvania to executive orders on public health lockdowns and believed the same would happen in California.

“The governor’s bar keeps rising,” Tina Dee said. “We’re seven months into this, and it’s no longer an epidemic. Protect the vulnerable, but also protect the rest of us and open up.”

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