Sonoma County supervisors seek broader reopening despite top health officer’s reservations

The push by the Board of Supervisors for a faster reopening comes amid pressure from business leaders and despite strong reservations from the county’s top health officer.|

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.

And she is not alone among local health officers. Dr. Sara Cody, health officer of Santa Clara County and a leading force in the Bay Area’s first-in-the-nation shelter order, urged her Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to hold off on an accelerated reopening.

“We’re not there yet,” Cody said, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. “The conditions really haven’t changed in our county. ... We don’t suddenly have a vaccine. We have exactly the same conditions we had in March. If we did ease up, we would see a brisk return of cases, of hospitalizations, and a brisk return of deaths, to be quite blunt.”

The state also requires letters of support from local hospitals. A Sutter Health spokeswoman said its Santa Rosa hospital has not been asked by the county for a letter. Representatives from Kaiser Permanente and St. Joseph Health, which operates Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, did not immediately respond with an answer on whether they had been approached by the county.

But supervisors were unanimous Tuesday in their push to seek a waiver, even if that meant being denied by the state.

Hopkins, who represents the tourism-dependent west county, including the entire Sonoma Coast, said a move would at least show residents that county leaders were trying.

“We are not in any way, shape or form, advocating for sacrificing our public health for the economy,” Hopkins said Wednesday at the editorial board meeting. She called for an approach that was more tailored to local conditions and concerns.

Rabbitt, who is working with Hopkins on business outreach amid the pandemic, said seeking a waiver is also about proving a point.

“I’d rather have a waiver get denied, quite frankly, to make the point,” Rabbitt said Tuesday, adding that the county should work with other counties to suggest their own, alternate criteria to the state’s.

In the editorial board meeting, Rabbitt pointed to dire forecasts from the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission showing an economic collapse worse than the Great Depression was on its way.

“The numbers I’m hearing are staggering,” he said.

County officials are expected to bring the waiver request to supervisors for their review at a Monday meeting before engaging in talks with state leaders Tuesday, Goldstein said in an email.

County supervisors stressed they won’t override their health officer, a public health expert with experience at the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’ve praised her efforts to guide the county through the pandemic, and cited the mid-March shelter-in-place order as key to allowing the county to even consider reopening at this point.

If things need to close down again, Zane said, Mase has “ultimate authority.”

“Dr. Mase is super smart. But she’s also very teachable,” said Zane, referencing the board’s push to have Mase think about other aspects of health, including the mental health of those sheltering in place. “I think what we’re asking for is really fair given how stringent the criteria is and how difficult it is to meet.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated the timeline for reopening wine tasting rooms. They are not scheduled to reopen until Stage 3 of the state’s framework.

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