At today’s virtual meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, local officials revealed that the county will not immediately comply with new statewide restrictions announced Monday by Governor Gavin Newsom in response to a spike in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The state’s surprise directive, issued by Newsom and the California Department of Public Health, ordered the immediate closure of all bars, plus the closure of indoor operations at restaurants, family entertainment centers, movie theaters, zoos, museums, wineries and card rooms.
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal acknowledged that the state’s order is already in effect, but he added, “We’re not planning on enforcing this until Friday.”
The Sheriff’s Office will give local businesses that additional time to transition their operations to sidewalks or parking lots, wherever possible. County staff will work quickly to advise local business owners and help them secure encroachment permits, Honsal said.
This afternoon, the county’s Joint Information Center issued a press release officially announcing this unsanctioned grace period.
Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich provided her latest update on local COVID-19 conditions, saying that while the state and country are experiencing a dramatic resurgence of the novel coronavirus, “In Humboldt we are actually doing pretty well.”
Through yesterday, Humboldt County was just slightly over the rate of 25 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, which is a threshold at the state level that can trigger even more restrictions on businesses. But Frankovich explained that counties must be over that threshold and have a testing positivity rate higher than eight percent in order to land on the state’s County Monitoring List and trigger those extra restrictions.
As of today, 31 of the state’s 58 counties — home to 80 percent of California residents — fall into that category. They’ve been ordered to close gyms, places of worship, malls, salons, barbershops and more. But Humboldt County’s testing positivity rate stood at just 2.4 percent through yesterday, saving us from the additional closures.
Frankovich said the largest public health challenge currently is the long turnaround times for testing results, a problem that has spread across the country as labs try to process the increased volume of tests being conducted. Shortages of supplies such as testing reagents have resulted in delays of up to a week or more, which renders effective contact tracing nearly impossible, Frankovich said.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn voiced resistance to the new state orders. He questioned whether the governor has the authority “to shut this off and on.” (Honsal explained that, in conjunction with the state’s director of public health, yes, Newsom does have that authority.) Bohn also asked whether the county can give businesses four to six days before enforcement starts, allowing restaurants to sell off some of the inventory they’ve recently purchased, including kegs of beer.
He said some restaurants aren’t able to offer outdoor dining, and many are at risk of permanent closure due to the economic hardships wrought by the shutdown. Regarding the latest restrictions, Bohn said, “It’s going to be the nail in the coffin for some of them. … We need to help these small businesses. They’re gonna go away. A couple big ones.”
Amy Nilsen, the county’s chief administrative officer, said financial help is available for local businesses through the federal CARES Act, and she’s been working with staff from the Economic Development department to get that money out to the community.
Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell encouraged compliance with public health directives, saying, “I know the reaction from some people is to try to rebel. The fact is, that makes it more difficult in the long run.”
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson addressed another facet of the situation. “We are getting some folks being pretty ornery at employees at businesses,” he said. “Everybody knows there has been violence associated with that kind of behavior around the U.S.,” including low-wage employees getting shot after asking patrons to wear masks, he noted.
“People who want to argue need to understand they do that in the context of this pattern of violence occurring … and that’s terrorizing,” Wilson said.
After Honsal announced his intention to not enforce the state order until Friday, Bohn asked him to wait until Monday. He said he received “no less than 50 phone calls” yesterday, including 14 calls from owners of restaurants and bars. “I didn’t hear anger and frustration,” he said, referring to Wilson’s comments. “I heard fear for their livelihoods and their ability to afford basic necessities for their children.”
He called on his fellow supervisors to take a stand: “This is extreme, you guys. Half of those [businesses] will go out of business. Let that sink in. This is when we as leaders step up … I know we have to answer to the state,. We have to answer to the people we serve, too. … I’m not gonna take the threats from the state. What’s worse than what they’re doing already?”
Fennell said it’s not just a matter of businesses being open. Customers have to show up. “People show up when they feel they’ll be safe,” she said.
Michelle Stephens, the county’s director of public health, said she does worry about the state’s capacity to withhold funding from counties that don’t comply with public health orders — funding that’s used for public safety measures including contact tracing that can limit spread of the coronavirus.
“People need our services now more than ever,” Stephens said.
During the public comment period, a couple of people voiced support for Bohn’s defiant stance, but a woman named Cheri Ward urged the county to take a more cautious approach toward the virus, warning that it wouldn’t take much of a surge to overwhelm local hospitals. And to the First District supervisor she said, “Rex Bohn, you scare me.” Ward said she understands his concern for businesses but urged him to “believe in this danger.”
At a previous meeting, Honsal noted that the governor has convened a state task force that can crack down on businesses that don’t comply with public health orders. Today he said he hasn’t heard anything about that team “coming up this way” but added that the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has local agents here, “so it’s always a possibility that they are out there.”
Enforcement measures are complaint-driven, according to Honsal. So while local businesses have been given a temporary reprieve from county authorities, the state still has authority to step in.