The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday in favor of modifying a proposed accelerated public health de-regulation plan to allow all businesses, houses of worship and other entities in Riverside County to fully reopen over the next six weeks, holding off on immediate action to determine how the state will respond.
“This is a way of saying we’re for the people of Riverside County,” said Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, who introduced the “COVID-19 Reopening Plan.”
“We’re going to be operating in an economy that’s going to be crushed,” he said. “We need to move forward on this and stop putting it off.”
The proposal drew more than 70 speakers to the County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside, as well as via telephonic participation, who were overwhelmingly in support of the plan, which will be reconsidered on Oct. 6 after some fine-tuning.
“If we choose a path that is not in line with the state, the state will take a hard line with us,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said.
Jeffries and Supervisor Karen Spiegel both said they were behind Hewitt’s concept, but before a final vote, they requested input from the Riverside County Business Task Force and an in-depth assessment by the Executive Office of what funds Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration might withhold or demand be returned to the state if the county divorces itself from the color-coded tier system currently used to gauge the pace of relaxing public health lockdowns.
County CEO George Johnson indicated that as much as $656 million could be in jeopardy, including $63 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act money recently distributed to the county, but he acknowledged that was a loose estimate — and one that Hewitt found implausible.
“Fear is a four-letter word. How dare you do this, George,” the supervisor said. “You think the governor is going to come and reclaim the money? Every month we’re down, how much gross domestic product is this county losing? How many millions of dollars are families not bringing home? You think the governor is going to change his mind on a whim? We’re staying within his parameters anyway.”
The speakers lined up on the supervisor’s side repeatedly expressed dismay over the state’s impositions in the name of coronavirus containment, blasting them as unconstitutional, totalitarian, economically destructive and detrimental to people’s mental health.
“A quarantine is to isolate people who are sick,” John Hussey of Riverside said. “But what they’re doing is isolating everybody and punishing business people.”
A swapmeet operator named Gonzalo told the board his business had been shuttered for three months.
“Our livelihood has changed. Who can survive?” he said. “You need to make a difference. This is heartbreaking. Represent us the way we deserve, the way we need.”
“Are we still living in the United States of America?” Laurie Ibarra said. “Every person is essential. Breathing without a mask is essential. It is our constitutional right to reopen Riverside County.”
Loren Dean said the people in the state and nation had been served a “steady buffet of fear” over COVID-19, but “the danger is nowhere near the prediction.”
“You must put the liberties of Riverside County residents first. Be brave,” he said.
Several ministers and nonprofit supporters pointed out that food banks and other charities are overwhelmed with demand for supplies from people thrown out of work by the state’s lockdowns. Speakers also said suicides, suicide attempts, depression, child abuse and other ramifications were attributable to the government-mandated changes in society.
Hewitt’s original plan centered on allowing a coronavirus testing positivity rate up to 14%, and anything above that would warrant returning to increased health regulations. According to the most recent California Department of Public Health data, the number of screenings that reflect positive tests for COVID-19 countywide is under 7%.
The county was moved out of the most restrictive “purple tier” to the less restrictive “red tier” Tuesday, and as a result, malls, movie theaters, barber shops and other establishments are permitted to open with limited capacities. However, “non-essential” office places, bars and other businesses are required to stay shut or risk penalties.
There are two remaining tiers before the county can fully reopen.
Hewitt’s proposal advocates a three-phase plan with a relatively expeditious timeline, beginning with permitting all dine-in restaurants, houses of worship, indoor offices, personal grooming establishments and shopping malls to open immediately.
The liberation, however, would be structured in accordance with state guidelines, including social distancing requirements, use of facial coverings in closed and crowded spaces and strong sanitation practices by business operators.
The plan additionally calls for the county CEO to be the frontline authority on how well the reopening is working, moving Riverside University Health System staff into an advisory role.
Under the plan, Phase II of the countywide reopening would begin Oct. 13 and would permit the resumption of wedding receptions and all group events that are capped at 25% capacity, or a 100-person limit, whichever is less.
Phase III would be designated for Nov. 3, and it would permit the unfettered operation of fitness centers, movie theaters and bars — with state virus-control standards remaining in place.
Spiegel pointed out that the county’s new tier designation already gives theaters and gyms guidelines for reopening now, and Hewitt said he would gladly amend the plan to reflect that restoration.
Supervisor Chuck Washington said he preferred a more cautious approach in line with the state’s system, and board Chairman Manuel Perez agreed, saying he preferred to “stay the course.” They cast dissenting votes in the motion to redraft and reconsider Hewitt’s plan on Oct. 6.