Sonoma County supervisors seek broader reopening despite top health officer’s reservations
Sonoma County officials, at the direction of the Board of Supervisors, are preparing to ask the state to allow the county to proceed more quickly with reopening parts of the local economy, joining several dozen counties that are already lobbying Sacramento to lift coronavirus-?related restrictions.
The move comes despite strong reservations from the county’s top health officer and a local COVID-19 caseload and death toll that would otherwise disqualify the county from an accelerated reopening under state benchmarks put forth last week.
County supervisors, who’ve been lobbied heavily by business leaders for a broader reopening, on Tuesday directed Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase to work with County Counsel Bruce Goldstein to draft a waiver, or variance, from those state-mandated metrics, which require, among other things, fewer than one coronavirus case per 10,000 residents and no deaths in the past two weeks.
Sonoma County has had two deaths in the past two weeks and has overshot the ceiling on case numbers, but appears to have met other state standards, which also cover testing, hospital bed capacity and homeless services.
“The question is, ‘Is anybody going to meet that criteria? Where is the state getting this criteria from?’?” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It doesn’t make any sense. This bar is very high.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration last week laid out a process for counties to certify the benchmarks tied to reopening, and his office is in talks with 31 of the state’s 58 counties, he said Wednesday. So far, 17 counties have been approved for the accelerated reopening, which includes dine-in restaurants and shopping malls. But those counties, most of which sit in rural Northern California and the Sierra Nevada, all meet the state’s criteria.
The push by supervisors comes amid ever grimmer economic forecasts, showing local jobless rates and losses that could soon surpass those seen in the depths of the Great Depression, Supervisor David Rabbitt said Wednesday in an interview with The Press Democrat’s editorial board. The county’s hospitality and tourism sectors are particularly vulnerable, Rabbitt and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins noted Wednesday, calling out businesses that rely on summer and fall traffic which is unlikely to materialize if restrictions on travel and other commerce aren’t lifted.
“We’re not looking to go rogue,” Rabbitt said. “This (pandemic) is real. We’ve got to do this right. ...We’ve got a good argument on cases. Not on deaths. We just want to make sure we’re right at the gate ready to go. ...We’ll continue to push appropriately so that as soon as they open the gate, we’re off.”
But Mase confirmed Wednesday she doesn’t think the county is ready for an accelerated reopening, and she appeared to be at a loss when asked to clarify exactly what supervisors had directed her to do Tuesday.
“I’m not sure what they want us to do,” Mase said in a press briefing.
On Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors, she cited the nation’s leading scientific figure on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who called for caution as the country moves forward.
As county supervisors made clear their desire to see the county push ahead to more quickly reopen shuttered businesses, Mase offered a warning of her own.
“Negative consequences can override the positive,” Mase told supervisors. “We need to do the correct thing for health overall. I just want to put that in there.”
Mase is the final authority on whether to request a waiver or to lift the county’s existing health orders, including the shelter-at-home order that mirrors Newsom’s statewide directive. She was quick to say Tuesday that she will work with supervisors to reach common goals.
At present, several of the state benchmarks appear far out of reach.
To meet the first - fewer than one case in 10,000 people over the past two weeks - the county would need to have fewer than 50 new confirmed cases in that timeframe. It’s had double that number, with the overall tally reaching 333 on Wednesday, including 105 ?new cases in the past two weeks. Four residents have died from the disease, with two of those deaths coming in the past couple of weeks.
The state, in its questionnaire to counties, calls those two benchmarks - current COVID-19 cases and recent deaths - a “foundational parameter” because they represent a baseline before any reopening, which experts, including Mase, have warned will result in greater spread of the deadly virus.