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Orange County officials are pushing back against the state’s new coronavirus business reopening metric, saying it’s too stringent and will prevent more business reopenings.
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The new state metric requires counties to smooth out transmission rates in working class, minority neighborhoods before more businesses can reopen.
“This addition to the state’s tier criteria is troubling in that it places another unfair burden on counties like ours that have already been working hard on assisting communities that have been hardest hit,” Supervisor Chairwoman Michelle Steel said at a Thursday news conference.
“Sacramento’s one-size-fits-all approach to this crisis does not work for the 58 counties across this large state. Not all regions are the same,” she said.
County CEO Frank Kim joined Steel’s opposition to the new metric.
“I think what we’re asking the state for is for additional flexibility,” Kim said.
He said colleges can also lead to case bumps because people from all over are coming back to campuses.
“So each county has different capacity to manage that. To understand it. We also have different demographics. I don’t think that we should all be treated exactly the same. We should be given a certain amount of flexibility,” Kim said.
Yet the last time that Orange County officials had that kind flexibility, they backed off key virus containment efforts – such as restaurant enforcement and a mandatory mask order – that left certain communities vulnerable until statewide orders were issued.
Latinos, while making up roughly 35 percent of OC’s population, have 47 percent of the total Covid confirmed cases, according to county Health Care Agency data.
Latinos also make up nearly half – 44 percent – of Covid deaths.
Public health experts said the virus’ sharp disproportionate impact on Latinos in Orange County is due to lack of healthcare access, overcrowded housing and not having the option to work from home.
A recent case bump prevented OC moving from Tier Two, or the Red Tier, into Tier Three, the Orange Tier, on the state’s tiered reopening system.
That means the county won’t be able to reopen bars for outdoor operations and allow more people into restaurants, churches, gyms, movie theaters and malls as the county remains in the red tier, or Tier Two. Bowling alleys also remain closed.
Most retailers are currently open and restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and churches have limited indoor operations.
Meanwhile, there’s been consistent pressure from local elected officials to reopen Disneyland.
But neighborhoods next to Disneyland-resort area have an over 8 percent positivity rate, more than double the countywide 3.2 percent rate.
During the summer case spikes, the county partnered with the Santa Ana-based nonprofit Latino Health Access and brought rates down in those neighborhoods. At one point, some neighborhoods had positivity rates reaching 20 percent.
The average rate for OC’s poorest neighborhoods is 6.6 percent, according to state data.
The new metric requires the county to get that rate under 5.2 percent before moving into the next tier.
“Leaving communities behind in order to game your testing and your case rates, I don’t think is right. So our approach is to make sure we are doing justice to our communities and we are not just gaming the system to paint a rosy picture,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Monday news conference.
Steel said the new health equity metric “punishes counties that are performing well with their COVID-19 response. We must work with the state to find a more effective approach that allows for more local control. Because the current approach isn’t working for our businesses and the communities that rely on them.”
Yet before statewide health orders were issued when the pandemic began in March, a series of local health orders were issued and revised. The changeup in various local health orders caused a series of confusion.
Former health officer Dr. Nichole Quick issued an order March 17 banning all public and private large gatherings, with exemptions on grocery shopping and other vital services, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
At the time the order was issued, there were 29 confirmed cases in OC.
The order initially applied to nonessential workplaces and encouraged telecommuting.
By the next day, the order was relaxed and only encouraged residents to not gather in large crowds. Although it did still shut down bars, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other large entertainment venues.
In late April, following growing protests against Newsom’s stay home orders, county Supervisors adopted business reopening guidelines. The guidance caused confusion among residents and the business community.
It was the second widespread confusion caused by OC officials.
By the end of April, the virus had killed 44 people out of 2,252 confirmed cases and hospitalizations were steadily growing.
When Quick authorized dine-in restaurants and shopping centers to reopen with her health order just before Memorial Day weekend, she also required people to wear masks when they’re in public. More businesses, like bars and gyms, were reopened following the holiday weekend.
Heading into the Memorial Day weekend reopening, the virus had killed 88 people out of 4,500 confirmed cases.
The mask order sparked protests and prompted a public backlash, with Quick eventually resigned by early June after receiving scores of threats, including one Steel classified as a “death threat.”
Dr. Clayton Chau, who took over the health officer position, lifted the mask order June 11.
At the time, the virus had killed 202 people out of nearly 8,000 confirmed cases. Hospitalizations were also steadily increasing.
A week later, Newsom required all Californians to wear masks when they’re in public places and shops.
By then, the virus had killed 250 people out of 9,300 confirmed cases.
Just before the Fourth of July weekend, Newsom ordered all bars and restaurants to halt indoor operations — effectively shutting down the establishments. By mid July, he ordered churches, malls, barber shops and gyms to close again.
He also put OC on the state’s now defunct coronavirus watchlist.
At the time, the virus had killed 424 people out of 25,255 cases and 674 people were hospitalized.
The end of July, OC saw its highest two-week death count with 140 people dead from the virus.
By then, the virus killed 566 people out of 34,646 confirmed cases.
Epidemiologists and public health experts said the case spikes from June and July were from people eating inside restaurants and drinking inside bars, coupled with the lack of a mask mandate.
The spikes eventually pushed hospitalizations over 700 at one point in July.
During the case spikes, schools were closed. Now they’re beginning to reopen and reports of new cases are slowly trickling out from school districts.
As of today, the virus has killed 1,316 county residents out of 55,345 confirmed cases, including 10 new deaths.
Because of death reporting regulations, the date of those deaths stretch over the past two weeks.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually.
As of Friday, 176 people were in hospitals, including 64 in intensive care units.
Nearly 930,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. Some people, like medical workers, get tested numerous times.
And a host of elected officials are pushing for Disneyland to reopen.
Chau also said he supports Disneyland reopening if the county movies into the Orange Tier.
“In conversations with [California Department of Public Health] and Health Officers from counties that have theme parks, I have advocated for theme parks to be safely reopened in Tier 3 – the Orange Tier,” Chau said in a Wednesday email.
Chau also said the effect of the virus needs to be examined not only on public health, but considerations of the economic effects also need to be taken into account.
“I believe in looking at the effect of COVID-19 not only on physical health but also on emotional health and economic/financial health of the entire community/population, Ie, supporting work/employments for our citizens of course with safety in mind.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio