Orange County officials are preparing to issue an amended social distancing health order sometime Wednesday, after acknowledging that poor wording in their initial order Tuesday – and virtually no response to media questions for hours – caused widespread confusion among the public.
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“We want businesses to operate, but we want them to do it safely within the guidelines that were issued by the state,” county CEO Frank Kim said in an interview late Tuesday night after hours of public confusion about the order.
As of Wednesday morning, officials were still finalizing details but aimed to have OC’s revised social distancing order adhere to state health guidelines about what people and businesses should do to slow coronavirus’ spread.
Those guidelines recommend things like cancelling non-essential events, having people work from home where possible, maintaining six foot separation between people who are in person, and a requirement that bars and in-person dining at restaurants be closed.
County officials have said the overall goal for their order is to largely repeat what the state guidance says.
OC officials’ overall message is that businesses can continue working if they maintain social distancing of six feet between people and follow other state guidelines. They also emphasize certain essential activities, like hospitals and grocery stores, will keep operating and should follow the state’s health guidance.
As of early Wednesday, Orange County officials said they were not issuing a “stay at home” order like Northern California counties, under which people are required to stay home except for essential trips like getting groceries, supplies, or walking their dogs.
Such an order in OC could come in the future, officials have said, as the number of known coronavirus cases rises in OC. State officials also have the power to require stay-at-home orders in counties.
It remained to be seen Wednesday morning how the county will summarize the state’s health advice in the new county order. As of Wednesday morning, the state guidance was spread across 21 different PDF documents for different types of activities like the food industry and senior care centers, prompting calls for the county to make its order easy for the public to understand.
County officials were moving towards creating a “frequently asked questions” guide, or FAQ, for the public. It wasn’t clear as of late Wednesday morning when that would be released.
The county’s initial order set off widespread confusion Tuesday evening about whether people were supposed 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.
Hours later, county officials acknowledged the confusion they created and said people should still work, as long as they follow 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.
“The order was poorly worded and is being re-worked. We are not closing all businesses,” county Supervisor Don Wagner said in a text message to a Voice of OC reporter late Tuesday.
One Orange County resident, in an email to Voice of OC on Wednesday, said she found out about the order third hand through a family member, and wondered how the public is supposed to find out what they can and can’t do.
“Regarding the County’s (incredibly confusing) order yesterday from Dr. Quick: how was one supposed to receive this information?” the reader wrote.
“Shouldn’t the County be disseminating official orders (with legal implications such as imprisonment and fines!) for something this important through official channels?” the reader added.
“Pardon me, but WTF?”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.