Orange County might be ready to open more businesses like restaurants and shopping centers as Memorial Day weekend draws near, with county supervisors pushing for faster reopenings after the novel coronavirus business shutdowns in March.
Editor’s Note: As Orange County’s only nonprofit & nonpartisan newsroom, Voice of OC brings you the best, most comprehensive local Coronavirus news absolutely free. No ads, no paywalls. We need your help. Please, click here to make a tax-deductible donation today to support your local news.
But it depends on if the county’s virus case counts and hospitalizations don’t see a dramatic increase before County Health Care Agency staff send the reopening plans to Sacramento.
“I do believe we are on track. I don’t know if we’ll submit (the reopening plans) today or tomorrow,” Supervisor Don Wagner said. “And it’s my hope the state will approve it right away and we can be open for the Memorial Day weekend. But a lot of things have to be met.”
Some of those benchmarks include less than 25 virus cases per 100,000 residents in the last two weeks or less than 8 percent positivity test rate for a week.
OC has also teamed up with San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside counties to lobby Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow more businesses to reopen. None of the counties qualify as of Wednesday, according to the state’s Department of Public Health webpage.
“I think we are right at the next step. The plan, I’m told, may be finished for formal review by the end of today. It will certainly be submitted by the end of today, if not tomorrow,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee said.
Supervisors pressed County staff to submit reopening plans as soon as possible at their Tuesday meeting in hopes of opening more businesses by the weekend.
Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 98 people out of 4,742 confirmed cases, according to the County’s updated numbers. There were also 253 people hospitalized, with 93 in intensive care units, as of Wednesday. Roughly 86,700 people have been tested throughout OC, which is home to nearly 3.2 million people.
University of California, Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said it generally appears OC is on the right track to reopen more businesses.
“I have to say Orange County is looking pretty good in the big picture,” Noymer said. “Let’s remember that phase 2 is not a complete and absolute opening .. .so it doesn’t mean we’ll be where we were in February. It just means we’ll be more open than we are at the present moment.”
Residents have been lobbying Supervisors to dismiss Newsom’s stay home orders and reopen businesses for weeks during the public comment section of the meetings. And some business owners told Supervisors they were going to reopen, despite the potential enforcement risks like having a license suspended.
Supervisors are expected to debate a $75 million bailout package for nonprofits, small businesses and food assistance for residents late next week. The Board unanimously approved a $26 million to reimburse cities for virus-related spending. The County, along with all cities and the state, will have to tackle budget deficits in upcoming finance hearings.
The business shutdowns, which started March 19 when Newsom issued the stay home orders, has been an economic gut punch for many OC residents and at least 4.6 million Californians who have applied for unemployment insurance.
Last week, Newsom said he expects an unemployment rate of 25 percent at some point this year — just over double the jobless numbers during the peak of the Great Recession.
The state employment department still doesn’t have jobless data reflecting the fallout from business shutdowns for OC and other counties.
The economic fallout has been putting pressure on the County’s Social Service Agency.
“Last week was one of our busiest weeks in our contact center. We took over 22,000 calls last week,” agency Director Debra Baetz told Supervisors during their Tuesday meeting.
“We accepted over 6,800 applications for public assistance,” Baetz said. “Food insecurity continues to be the number one ask in the community — 61 percent of our applications are CalFresh (food stamp) applications.”
She also said the state Department of Social Services granted the OC’s Social Service Agency more leeway in direct cash payments for poor and needy families during the pandemic.
“So we’re assessing what those needs are so we can issue direct payments.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Digital Editor Sonya Quick contributed to this story. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sonyanews.