Failing to Meet State Criteria, Riverside County Seeks Waiver for Rapid Phase 2 Re-Opening

Failing to Meet State Criteria, Riverside County Seeks Waiver for Rapid Phase 2 Re-Opening

Above: Governor Gavin Newsom (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

S.E. Williams | Contributor

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to lift orders for social distancing and the need for face masks in public last week.

The decision was controversial and many cities within the county chose to continue with their citywide social distancing and face mask orders in place.

This week, the Board unanimously approved its Readiness and Reopening Framework strategy as it seeks to gain approval from California Governor Gavin Newsom to move more aggressively to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening strategy.   

Riverside County Supervisors acknowledged the need to engage with the state and neighboring counties to develop public health and safety criteria appropriate for large, diverse urban communities—Riverside is the fourth most populous county in the state.

Among the first priorities mentioned in the county’s 33-page document was the need to provide a path to reopen the county’s economy with the proper health and safety measures in place. As a preamble, the plan offered the following argument: “[W]ithout a proper fiscal base, grounded on a healthy economy, the County of Riverside cannot provide essential services to protect public health and safety.”

In the county’s Reopening Framework, supervisors stated, “[We] strongly advocate, on behalf of our residents and businesses, that the state work with the county to acknowledge that we are ready to accelerate through the Governor’s Stage 2.”

When California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday, March 5th, the state was moving to a structured Phase 2 of its reopening strategy, he emphasized this phase includes the opening of office workspaces where teleworking is not possible, outdoor museums and limited personal services like car washes, dog-grooming and landscaping businesses, provided there are protections to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

This week, Newsom revised Phase 2 to include dine-in restaurants, shopping malls and office buildings. 

“We will work with every county, with every city in a practical and responsible way. But, here’s the caveat. This is a health-driven conversation. It is not because we don’t want to [reopen]. It’s not because we would not like to. It’s not because we want to be particularly oppressive in terms of people’s desire and need—Public health dictates that we do this in a judicious and thoughtful way.”  –  California Governor Gavin Newsom

Statewide guidance for these sectors is available online.

In the meantime, Riverside County is seeking a regional variance be applied to religious services, personal care/grooming services, hospitality services and wineries. And possibly, since the governor  has  added sit-down restaurants, etc. to Phase 2, the county may seek to  include reopening these facilities as well.

This is because despite Riverside County Supervisors’ continued push to open quickly for economic reasons, when California entered Phase 2 on March 5th, there were only two counties in the state who met the requirements for reopening.

Today, only 15 of the state’s 58 counties meet the established requirements—Riverside is “not” listed among them. 

California’s expectations for Stage 2 openings include: no more than one new COVID-19 case per 10,000 residents in the past 14 days; no COVID-19 deaths in the past 14 days; essential workers must have access to Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs); a minimum of 1.5 tests per 100,000 residents being conducted daily; at least 15 contact tracers per 100,000 residents; the ability to temporarily house 15 percent of the county’s homeless population; hospitals are equipped to handle a 35 percent surge at minimum; nursing facilities have a two-week supply of personal protective equipment; and, the continued monitoring of metrics to potentially re-enact restrictions.

Although Riverside has met some of the requirements for Phase 2 reopening, it has failed to meet all of them. 

Riverside residents continue dying. After the Board of Supervisors’ controversial vote on Friday to abandon social distancing and facemasks; by Monday, the municipality had added 150 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 27 additional deaths. This raised the county’s COVID-19 totals to 5,189 confirmed cases and 217 deaths.

Two days later, on Wednesday, May 13th, the county had already added another 154 confirmed cases and brought the county’s total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to 5,343, and another 11 Riverside residents were dead—this raised Riverside County’s COVID-19 death toll to 228.

The IE Voice/Black Voice News reached out to Riverside County Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser, who leads the county Department of Public Health and requested his position as a “healthcare professional” regarding the value of wearing facemasks and social distancing, in part to protect the person wearing it, but more so to protect everyone he/she may interact with while the virus continues to spread.

After the Board voted unanimously to rescind the order last Friday, May 8, 2020, Kaiser immediately responded to the Board’s direction and rescinded the order in his role as the county’s health officer; but little has been revealed about his professional insights as a physician regarding the efficacy of this action, particularly in relation to the Hippocratic oath taken by himself and every physician that states in part, “First, do no harm.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, Jose Arballo Jr., answered the request for comment from Dr. Kaiser saying, “At this time, Dr. Kaiser is not available to respond.” In late March however, Arballo himself stated to KCAL, “When you wear a face covering, not only are you protecting yourself, you’re protecting other people from you.”

When Governor Newsom announced the state was moving to Phase 2, a little more than a week ago, he acknowledged, “We know that one size doesn’t fit all.” Adding, “We recognize that certain parts of our state have been hit harder while other regions have felt less impact from COVID-19.”

It appears Riverside County officials embraced the governor’s recognition that one size does not fit all—it appears from the perspective of the area’s supervisors—the governor’s plan does not fit Riverside County.

Yet, Riverside County rates second in the state—only behind Los Angeles—in the number of confirmed cases per 100,000 residents and the number of deaths per 100,000 residents, according to a recently published LA Times report.

At 220.2 confirmed COVID-19 cases per hundred thousand in Riverside County, the next closest county—ranking third in the state—is San Diego County which had only 156.3 confirmed cases per 100,000 during the same period. San Diego also placed a distant third behind Riverside County with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 residents compared to Riverside’s 9.4 deaths.

The governor stressed, “We will continue our active engagement with counties to begin easing the Stay at Home order only when the science, data and public health tell us it’s safe to do so.”

Riverside County Supervisors are purportedly unmoved by science, data or public health experts. Instead, they appear to rely on the—pandemic and infectious disease expertise—of local business leaders and political leaders to guide their decisions as evidenced in the county’s reopening strategy.

It clearly declares, “The state’s required epidemiologic benchmarks for advancement through Accelerated Stage 2 are unrealistic for urban counties, and Riverside County in particular, where our geographic size and population make it impossible that no deaths from COVID-19 will result in a 14-day timeframe.” It appears they forgot the basic math theory that teaches everything is relative.

The county is seeking to form an alliance with nearby counties to press the governor to acquiesce to their demand to loosen some of his requirements—particularly regarding COVID-19 related deaths.

Some speculate the supervisors may have forgotten there was a time, not so long ago, when Riverside residents did not fear or die from COVID-19. As expressed by Riverside County resident Marie Davis, “We are hopeful the time will come when people dying from this disease will be rare. Davis said she understands the need to reopen but believes doing everything to protect human life should come first.”

Riverside County officials, however, appear comfortable with their new projections recently adjusted downward which reflect what they defined as “our current situation.”

“As of May 11, 2020,” they wrote, “[O]ur projections show a total case count of approximately 6,500 and 240 deaths by the end of May” They further noted how,”[The county’s] actual daily case counts have been mirroring this projection quite closely.”

However, data tallied on the county’s own Department of Public Health’s website belies this proclamation. After accruing 38 additional deaths from Friday, May 6 to Wednesday, May 13, the county deaths already totaled 228 and May had not reached the half-way point. At this rate it seems sadly certain, the county may exceed 240 deaths before the end of the month.

Riverside’s Readiness and Reopening Framework makes frequent reference to following best practices to guide its way forward as it plans for the reopening of businesses and public facilities. It also notes the importance of limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Whether Riverside County has done enough to meet the state’s Phase 2 rapid implementation requirements is doubtful, though a final decision now rests with Governor Newsom. 

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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