Orange County Supervisors Trigger Confusion With Reopening Guidelines

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

County Supervisor Michelle Steel at a supervisors meeting.

Orange County supervisors triggered a widespread debate in media and social media Tuesday over whether businesses can re-open, when they adopted their own set of voluntary guidelines from a business advisory group.


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When the guidelines were approved at Tuesday’s county supervisors’ meeting, one of the lead supervisors on the document, Don Wagner, said they do not change the state’s orders regarding businesses. But a press release later from him and Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel regarding the supervisors’ vote emphasized a “transition back to business as usual,” which was picked up by local TV and other media that published headlines saying the supervisors had voted to “reopen” business in the county.

It was the second time during the coronavirus pandemic that the county caused confusion about whether private businesses could operate.

Businesses deemed “non-essential” are currently closed across California under an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has said he could start allowing more businesses to operate in the coming weeks.

At their meeting Tuesday, county supervisors approved voluntary guidelines for how companies should operate, which began by urging “all businesses in Orange County to comply” with advice like physical distancing at workplaces. The guidelines do say they do not change the state’s orders, without describing what those orders do.

But an ensuing press release from Wagner and Steel left some with the impression that Orange County was re-opening for businesses.

“The guidelines unanimously approved by the board will act as a model for Orange County to transition back to a normal state of activity,” read the news release.

The release noted that the guidelines “do not supersede any conflicting or more restrictive orders” from the state, and then proceeded to say business would be transitioning back to normal.

“As we transition back to business as usual, we must do so in a manner that is conscious of the public health but also addressing the needs of businesses and their employees who need to put food on the table.”

Orange County officials acknowledged Tuesday they do not have the power to supersede Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders closing all businesses not deemed essential.

“We can’t re-open Orange County, for two very good reasons,” Supervisor Don Wagner said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, noting the state orders “supersede” what OC officials do.

County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson declined to comment Wednesday on the interpretation that the county was re-opening businesses, deferring to Steel and Wagner’s offices.

Asked Wednesday about the confusion over whether businesses can re-open in Orange County, Steel said some businesses can start operating again.

“Orange County set guidelines for businesses to operate for a continuation of regular operations,” Steel said in a statement to Voice of OC Wednesday.

“Many businesses that were not specified in the Governor’s orders have been left in limbo as to whether they can operate. If these businesses were not mentioned in the seven categories set forth by the state, they can resume doing business as long as they comply with the health and safety guidelines that the county approved of yesterday.”

But Wagner said Wednesday the supervisors have been clear they were not re-opening businesses.

“The board was clear in its Guidelines document and in comments at the meeting that we were not ‘re-opening Orange County’ for business,” Wagner said in a text message Wednesday to Voice of OC.

“We never closed Orange County and the state and local city orders remain in place. Our goal was to set clear guidelines for the steps Orange County residents should take to avoid Orange County enforcement actions against them. But everyone still must follow applicable state and local legal orders,” Wagner added.

In a briefing Tuesday, Newsom said he may start allowing non-essential businesses that can operate at a lower health risk may reopen in “a matter of weeks, not months.”

“If we pull back too quickly … it could start a second wave that could be even more damaging than the first,” Newsom said.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been steadily rising in Orange County over the last several weeks, from about 117 patients at the beginning of April to 189 in the hospital on Monday, according to data reported by hospitals to the state.

The governor has said he wants to see the curve “flatten” and steady decline in hospitalizations before relaxing many of the restrictions.

While the data shows COVID hospitalizations increasing in Orange County, county supervisors declared Tuesday that the curve had flattened and was decreasing.

“Orange County has effectively ‘flattened the curve,’ ” Wagner and Steel wrote in their news release Tuesday announcing the business guidelines.

“With the curve trending down and OC healthier than surrounding counties, we don’t want to trade one problem for a bigger problem,” Wagner added in the release.

Last month, before Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his statewide closure orders, OC officials caused widespread confusion about whether they were shutting down many private businesses.

The county’s initial March 17 order said it banned “All public and private gatherings of any number of people, including at places of work, occurring outside a single household or living unit,” with specific exceptions.

But county officials later said their intent was to only close bars and restaurants, and that all other businesses are encouraged to keep operating.

“Unfortunately, the order as written caused wide-spread confusion,” county officials acknowledged in a news release about four hours after they released the March 17 order. The next day, the county changed the order to more closely mirror the state’s health advice, which was then superseded when the governor issued his stay-at-home orders.

The new business guidelines OC supervisors approved Tuesday were developed at a series of closed-door discussions among Orange County business leaders and county supervisors Steel and Wagner.

While supervisors had copies of the guidelines before they voted on them, the document was not made public until after the supervisors’ vote. The proposed guidelines did not appear on the public meeting agenda before supervisors voted unanimously to adopt them.

State law – the Ralph M. Brown Act – requires proposed actions by county supervisors be placed on the public agenda so the public can see and comment on it before their electeds representatives take action.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.