California Gov. Gavin Newsom delivered a pointed rebuke to two rural California counties that defied the state's stay-at-home order and allowed many retail businesses to reopen, saying Tuesday they are “making a big mistake" and endangering public health.
Newsom left it up to officials in Yuba and Sutter counties to “do the right thing," which he didn't specify but clearly meant to craft a public health plan that aligns with state requirements he'll reveal Thursday. That would mean closing some businesses that opened Monday.
Yuba and Sutter counties could test how far Newsom is willing to go to enforce his stay-at-home order. He has generally preferred to rely on pressure from local governments and residents for compliance, but that may not work this time.
His warning didn't appear to faze the counties' officials.
Sutter County Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer said he was “irritated” by Newsom’s comments. He said the counties were following the directive of their shared public health officer, Dr. Phuong Luu, who allowed restaurants to serve diners, hairstylists to cut hair and retail shops to open their doors to shoppers, provided they all followed restrictions.
Ziegenmeyer said he will urge county officials to allow those businesses to stay open.
“I took my family out to dinner last night and couldn’t have felt safer,” he said.
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Chuck Smith, spokesman for the Yuba and Sutter COVID-19 response center, said the counties “stand by” Luu’s order.
The Yuba Sutter Mall, which has a fitness center and about 50 stores, still plans to reopen Wednesday with modifications to encourage social distancing. General Manager Natasha Shelton said some stores won't open due to the governor’s order. But others “are real excited to open."
“We’re inviting everyone to come to the center,” she said.
California was the first state to impose a mandatory stay-at-home order. Since taking effect March 19, millions have lost jobs and there is growing pressure on Newsom and local officials to reopen the economy.
Many lawsuits challenging Newsom's action have been filed and on Tuesday he prevailed in one when a federal judge ruled he had authority to limit religious gatherings during the crisis.
Newsom has been reluctant to loosen the order too quickly, preferring a slower approach he says relies on science and data instead of political or economic pressure.
Based on improving data on hospitalizations due to the virus, he plans to make his first significant changes to the stay-at-home order later this week and allow businesses like bookstores, florists and sporting goods stores to reopen, with curbside pickup. The new order would not apply to hair salons or malls or allow diners at restaurants, though Newsom signaled a willingness to work with local governments on “regional variances.”
To reopen, Newsom says the state must be able to test enough people for the virus and find people exposed people so they can isolate to reduce the risk of spread. He also says hospitals need to be prepared for a surge of cases and the state must have enough protective gear.
Newsom released a report card Monday showing the state was on schedule for those requirements.
The reopening is becoming a push-pull between rural areas where the virus has not been as prevalent and urban centers. The San Francisco Bay Area counties and Los Angels County have said they plan to keep local orders that are stricter than what Newsom will unveil Thursday.
The Rural County Representatives of California, an association of 35 California counties, has urged members not to reopen things like malls, gymnasiums and salons that are not part of the second stage that Newsom will outline Thursday.
“Counties need to be aware that the state has a lot of tools to use to prevent that,” for instance by revoking licenses for serving alcohol or for hair and nail salons, said Paul A. Smith, the group’s senior vice president of government affairs. “So they need to really be careful about that. When you start to advise them of some of the consequences, then they begin to understand that.”
Still, last Friday Modoc County was the first to defy the order. It is tucked in the far northeastern corner of the state and has only about 8,800 residents, making the move more symbolic than substantive.
More significant was Monday's reopening in Sutter and Yuba counties, located just north of Sacramento and with a combined population of 175,000. They have had just 44 confirmed cases and have no one hospitalized with the virus, according to state data.
On Tuesday, Newsom said the counties were “putting our progress at risk.” He said the state is willing to work with them “to accommodate their local needs."
“But we have a process and protocol to do that," he said. “And so we believe in ‘ready, aim, fire,' not ‘ready, fire, aim.'”
Newsom pointed to Orange County as an example of cooperation producing a compromise.
Last week, following a weekend that saw thousands on Huntington and Newport beaches, Newsom ordered all shorelines in the county closed. Huntington Beach and other communities were cleared to reopen after crafting more restrictive policies.
California has more than 58,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 2,400 deaths. However, the number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.
Associated Press reporters Don Thompson and Kathleen Ronayne contributed.