Riverside County received a warning from the state Tuesday that it is in danger of slipping back into the first phase or purple tier of the re-opening plan. This could cause some recently reopened businesses to close once again.
On September 22, Riverside County’s COVID-19 numbers were improving and so the county advanced into the state’s second or red tier re-opening phase, allowing some businesses like gyms, restaurants and salons to partially resume indoor services.
But Tuesday, Riverside County Health Official Dr. Cameron Kaiser told the board of supervisors that the county’s progress is reversing.
“There is no good way to say it but both our positivity rate and our case rates are rising," said Kaiser. "We see the same thing in San Bernardino County so we do not think this is a local artifact of our numbers.”
Kaiser says the county needs people to get tested to raise the county’s testing rate back above state averages. Testing will also help officials identify undiagnosed cases to help break the cycle of spread.
“Most of all we still need people to do what we’ve been asking them to do," said Kaiser. "To socially distance, please wear facial coverings and please work with our contact tracers so we can find those events and settings where spread is occurring. We don’t judge, we just want it to end.”
County Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari told the board that the county has a five percent case positivity rate. And its case rate per 100,000 people, adjusted for the number of tests being given, is over seven. She says they did try looking at the county-wide numbers to figure out where the increases are happening.
“We’re not seeing any definitive increase by age, by race, ethnicity, or area," said Saruwatari. "It appears to be relatively county-wide, so as Dr. Kaiser mentioned, the concern is that people are starting to become lax in terms of following masking, social distancing, and hand washing, and so we are seeing increased transmission.”
But Saruwatari says a new state requirement to track rates in disadvantaged communities sits at a seven percent positivity rate and appears to be due to spikes in areas like the Coachella Valley, where 20 percent of cases are essential workers and a majority of those people are from the Latinx community. Supervisor Chuck Washington explained the new metric will not be used against the county's progress in re-opening.
“The equity metric will not be used to move a county back a tier," said Washington. "Because what they want us to do is to focus on areas where there is a spike so we can focus on containment.”
This news of worsening coronavirus numbers comes as the board considered the adoption of a phased reopening plan independent of the state’s tier system. It was originally proposed by Supervisor Jeff Hewitt on September 22. His proposal called for the county to examine COVID-19 case data to decide on a county-wide reopening schedule. The plan would include guidance for hotel group meetings and wedding receptions that follow current state guidance for restaurants. These activities are not currently included in the state’s tier system.
“We don’t need the state who knows nothing about Riverside County," said Hewitt. I don’t even know how many times the governor and his staff have been down here to check it out. We can do the things we need. We have that ability.”
A lengthy public comment period saw a majority express support for a full reopening and removal of all restrictions including mask wearing, citing concerns over liberty. But a full reopening was never in consideration.
Supervisor Karen Spiegel explained that the state mandates for a shutdown cannot be overruled by county or city government. She gave a cautious message that individual action is holding businesses back from reopening.
“One thing that everybody needs to know is we’re not saying rip off your masks, stop washing your hands and hug everybody [where] you go," said Spiegel. "We’ve always supported the safety measures. Do it for the businesses. Do it for your family.”
County officials warned the state could retaliate against an independent reopening plan by withholding up to $144 million in coronavirus relief. The funds could affect money intended for the public health epidemiology department and a program that gives hotel rooms to homeless people at high risk for COVID-19 complications.
Ultimately the board voted four to one on a compromise to direct county staff to work with the state on guidelines for allowing hotel group meetings and wedding receptions to resume.