County Still Hopeful It Can Reopen Despite Grim News

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By Barry Holtzclaw

The Fourth of July weekend didn’t give Santa Clara County public health officials much to celebrate.

Despite local robo-calls and texts from the county and pleas on new billboards from the state to follow social distancing protocols to fight the coronavirus, shoppers crowded retail centers like Santana Row by the hundreds, ignoring social distancing. State Alcoholic Beverages Control officers raided restaurants in Morgan Hill for social distancing violations in outdoor dining.

Illegal fireworks echoed up and down the Santa Clara Valley, igniting at least one wildfire at Anderson Reservoir, forcing evacuations in South County, and fire crews fought to contain an even larger fire near Gilroy.

The state Department of Health sent the county an email at 9:32am July 4, rejecting a plan announced two days earlier to reopen thousands of businesses and offices in mid-July, saying it was incomplete. The next day, a record number of COVID-19 cases, 206, were reported in the county, as hospitalizations, 86, and the death toll, 164, attributed to the coronavirus continued to climb.

The same grim scenarios played out across the state and the nation.

More than 9,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported across California on July 3, and another 8,600 on July 4, boosting the state totals to 271,684 cases, with 6,337 deaths, sharply reversing the downward trends of a month ago. Across the U.S., COVID-19 totals passed the 3 million mark, and the death toll rose above 130,000. LIkely infections from holiday gatherings will add to the numbers in the next couple of weeks, officials warn.

The only good news for the county came today, July 6, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he had removed Santa Clara County from his COVID-19 “watch list,” while adding several other counties as potential targets for new “strike teams” going after businesses that violate public health protocols. County hospitalization rates had more than doubled in June, but the numbers were relatively low.

Also today, county and state officials were reportedly going back and forth in discussing the county reopening plan, as the county said it would continue to press for its approval.

Deputy County Executive David Campos made an unannounced appearance at the start of a regular Facebook Live broadcast of the county Public Health Department this morning to confirm reports the state had rejected the county reopening plan.

“As has been reported, the state has issued an initial rejection of the variance application,” said Campos as he stood in front of a big-screen image of the San Jose Inside page that reported the state rejection of the county plan on July 4. His statements amounted to the only official comment on the issue from the county today.

“As long as these conversations [with the state] continue, we remain committed to the process that we outlined when we issued this last order,” he said.

“We are still in conversations and discussions with the state about that application, but we wanted to make sure that people knew that that had happened,” he said.

What exactly happened remained unclear, other than a reference in the July 4 email to county Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, in which Jake Hanson of the California Department of Public Health wrote, “The Santa Clara variance attestation does not meet the metrics or criteria necessary to be posted … at this time. In order for a county’s attestation to be posted, all metrics must be met in their entirety.” Hanson is executive administrator of the California Conference of Local Health Officers for the state Department of Public Health.

Hanson was not specific, but he likely was referring to the fact that in its rush to reopen, the county neglected to include any promised “mandatory directives for specific business sectors and activities” in its 35-page variance, instead saying they were “coming soon.”

The county plan announced July 2 by Cody was long on theory but short on specifics.

The “coming soon” promise followed each of these businesses and activities:

  • Personal services (including hair and nail salons, tattoo and piercing shops, massage therapy, and other services providing body care services)
  • Gatherings (including social, religious, political, ceremonial, athletic, and other types of gatherings)
  • Gyms and fitness centers
  • Public transit
  • Recreation and athletics
  • Construction
  • Hotels/motels
  • Agriculture
  • Outdoor pools
  • Food facilities
  • Outdoor dining
  • Childcare, summer camps, and children’s activities

Campos described the proposed new Santa County order as one “that would essentially take us away from an industry-specific approach into a risk-reduction strategy that would allow a number of activities to resume provided that we followed strict guidelines, subject to the approval of the state.”

The plan would allow outdoor gatherings up to 60 people and indoor gatherings up to 20 people. It also would allow businesses and offices to reopen, as long as they provide at least 250 square feet of space for each employee, roughly a 15×16-foot area and at least 150 square feet of space for each customer, roughly a 12-foot diameter circle, with strict rules that masks be worn at all times.

In his email to Cody, Hanson said: “I am more than happy to have a conversation with you and your team regarding your data and the metrics required for the attestation. I believe this could be helpful as there are a few additional parts of the attestation that I can assist you and the team with to provide better detail in specific sections.”

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