More than a day after issuing a health order that caused widespread confusion about whether it’s now illegal for people to go to work, Orange County officials replaced it with a new order saying businesses should generally keep operating but within state health guidelines that call for people staying physically separate as much as possible.
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The new order, issued at 5 p.m. Wednesday, says no businesses are required to close except bars and other alcohol-serving establishments, movie theaters, gyms and health clubs. Restaurants can operate, but only provide delivery pick up and drive-through service, not in-person dining.
The order asks all businesses and organizations to follow state health guidance, available at this link, specific to their type of business. As of Wednesday, that guidance was spread across 21 different PDF documents and links, but generally recommends six-foot separation from people as much as possible, with exceptions and other advice specific to particular industries.
“It is important for Orange County businesses to remain open while practicing social distancing consistent with the California Department of Public Health’s guidance,” said the county’s health officer, Dr. Nichole Quick, in a news release accompanying the new health order she issued.
“However, following State guidelines, all bars and other establishments that serve alcohol and do not serve food shall close. All restaurants and other business establishments that serve food shall close all onsite dining. Pickup, delivery and drive thru services may remain open. All movie theatres, gyms, and health clubs shall close.”
County officials also encouraged businesses to have employees work from home where possible.
Officials also announced the number of known coronavirus cases in OC had grown from 29 as of Tuesday to 42 cases as of Wednesday. The number of people who acquired coronavirus locally grew was 12 as of Wednesday, up from four the day before.
The number of known cases was expected to rise as more testing is conducted. The virus, which for seniors is more than 20 times more deadly than the flu, can double every few days but its spread slows significantly the more people keep physical distance from one another. Health officials recommend staying in touch with family, friends, and others through phone and video chat.
The county’s initial health order, issued just before 3 p.m. Tuesday, set off widespread confusion about whether people were being told not to work at work at private businesses.
It started with a ban on “All public and private gatherings of any number of people, including at places of work, occurring outside a single household or living unit,” and then listed a long list of exemptions for activities like food and health care services.
Soon after the order was issued around 3 p.m., Voice of OC sought answers from county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson – the official public information officer for the County’s Emergency Operations Center – about how the order would function in practice. She declined to explain the order after multiple phone and email requests.
Hours later, county officials acknowledged the confusion they created and said people should still work, as long as they follow the state guidelines.
“Unfortunately, the order as written caused wide-spread confusion,” county officials said in a news release at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, about four hours after they released the initial order.
In a rare county news conference Wednesday, county officials said the order is mostly health advice, and that the only closures are of bars, in-person restaurant dining, movie theaters, gyms and health clubs.
“We are not trying to shut down business in the county of Orange. If you have a business, even if it is not one of those defined by the state as essential, you’re still able to operate today,” said county supervisor Don Wagner at a rare county news conference Tuesday afternoon.
“We would like you to practice the responsible social distancing that we’re talking about. We’re asking you to avoid gatherings of large numbers of people. We’re asking, to the extent telecommunication is possible, do it,” Wagner added.
“But don’t turn away your business. Don’t say, ‘I’m closed down and worried that the Sheriff’s Department is gonna come and arrest you for going to work in the morning.’ ”
Sheriff Don Barnes, answering questions from the press, said that bars were cooperative with the health order when deputies spoke with them Tuesday night during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
“There’s no better time to test that procedure than on St. Patricks’ Day. So we were out last night, we were asking for voluntary compliance. We received it. We didn’t have any issues with any of the businesses that were operating…maybe without [being] informed of the order,” Barnes said.
“They were completely cooperative with us. We are asking for the public’s voluntary compliance,” he added. “We need everybody to buy in unilaterally across the county on the recommendations that are being made and being recommended.”
“I think even the patrons there, even though they wanted to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, realize this is much bigger than one day of a year. And when you express the risk [to health]…that’s the important part.”
Coronavirus continues to present a risk to frontline first responders like paramedics, nurses, police and firefighters, officials noted.
About 20 firefighters with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) have been physically present with members of the public who potentially had coronavirus, with most still in self-isolation until test results come in, which can take 72 to 96 hours, said OC Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy.
One OCFA firefighter came in contact with a person who later tested positive for coronavirus.
Dispatchers with OCFA and the Sheriff’s Department have also started asking more questions of 9-1-1 callers to identify potential coronavirus cases before any first responders are sent out, officials said.
After the confusion the county caused over their initial health order, officials were privately expressing concern about their own county government’s ability to communicate clearly to the public.
Just before Wednesday’s news conference, emergency officials announced that their public information hotline had gone down. It reportedly was back up by the evening.
And people watching the news conference live on Facebook expressed frustration and yet more confusion.
“You can’t just say one thing and mean another. The lack of clarity is terrible,” wrote one person
“What the HELL WAS THAT!! I didn’t understand really none of it !!!” said another.
And at a time the county was telling people to practice social distancing, county officials initially had no plans to live stream the news conference.
They made plans to add a Facebook Live stream after Voice of OC inquired why there wouldn’t be a livestream of the news conference, which was held at the county’s new $300 million administration building.
Among the confusion about the initial order, officials said, were concerns from hair and nail salons about whether they can still operate, given the close proximity between staff and customers. County officials say people should rely on state health guidelines, which did not seem to have guidance specifically for salons as of Wednesday evening.
“It’s so stupid they are not shutting everything down. Are they going to wait till we look like Italy to actually force shut down??? I’ve closed my salon for two weeks to help flatten the curve,” read one Facebook comment on the county’s news conference live stream.
“If this order mimics the state order, why issue your own order, and create this massive confusion? Why not just simply refer to the state guidelines?” read another.
Another person wrote: “They have miscommunicated and failed giving answers to very important questions for a week at least.”
Meanwhile, court workers and attorneys have expressed concerns that at least one judge in Orange County Superior Court was forcing them to go to work Thursday, despite the courts closing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The court’s lead spokesman did not immediately return a call to his cell phone Wednesday evening.
Court workers, their labor representatives, and attorneys expressed deep concerns about the implications for worker safety.
Voice of OC reporting fellow Brandon Pho and publisher Norberto Santana Jr. contributed reporting.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].