SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As restaurants and stores were cleared to open for customers in more than half of California’s counties on Wednesday, one county tried to push even farther, allowing barbershops, churches and movie theaters to open without the state’s permission.
Tulare County’s board of supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to move further into the state’s four-stage reopening plan than is allowed. That means nearly all businesses and churches could reopen, though county officials said businesses should adhere to state guidelines on social distancing and other health measures.
In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration threatened the county’s ability to access state and federal disaster funds, similar to a warning it gave recently to three northern counties that defied state orders.
“Should Tulare County experience a surge in COVID-19 cases as a result of hasty and careless actions, the county may be ineligible for reimbursement” through state and federal dollars, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services wrote in a letter to the county administrator dated Tuesday.
It’s the latest conflict between the state and counties over how swiftly to ease stay-at-home orders imposed in mid-March to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Newsom on Monday set guidelines that will allow most counties to reopen restaurants for dine-in and other services like child care and even schools if they can meet certain benchmarks on hospitalizations, case loads and testing. But it still bans the opening of churches, gyms and other large gathering spaces.
Robert Link, the mayor of Visalia, the Tulare County seat, said the city has barely enforced state and county guidelines on business closures, except in the case of gyms and large gatherings.
“We had already come to the point where we were allowing some businesses to reopen,” he said, adding the city didn’t plan to fine them if they broke state or county rules.
County officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The vote to reopen came as the county, home to 442,000 residents in the Central Valley, reported a spike of 101 new coronavirus cases and four more deaths.
Tulare County’s nursing homes in particular are struggling with the coronavirus: 51 deaths and infections among nearly 30% of the more than 1,100 residents. Local officials blame the state, which regulates nursing homes.
For most people, the coronavirus 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, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
Among those counties given the go-ahead to open as of Wednesday were San Luis Obispo, the southernmost county yet approved; Napa County in the heart of California’s wine country; and Merced County in the Central Valley. Each is taking their own approach to easing restrictions.
At Napa’s Downtown Joe’s Brewery and Restaurant, customers were starting to trickle in Wednesday morning, when waiters served breakfast to five tables that had been separated to allow for social distancing, owner Joe Peatman said.
Peatman said the restaurant with views of the Napa River that serves house-brewed beers and burgers never closed, but he had to reduce his staffing from 40 to six employees. Takeout was only bringing in about 10% of the business the restaurant normally saw, he said.
“Now we’re able to serve people inside our building and outside on our patio, and it’s a blessing because we weren’t going to make it,” Peatman said.
To get ready, employees removed half of the tables from the restaurant that previously had a capacity for 250 people. All employees will be required to wear masks and plastic gloves. Customers, too, will be required to wear a mask when they enter the restaurant, and any time they are not at their tables, Peatman said.
Meanwhile, San Diego County supervisors voted Tuesday to let it be a test case for more rapidly reopening businesses and allowing more gatherings and recreational options.
The plan would let California’s second-largest county jump ahead to stage three in Newsom’s four-stage plan and reopen such things as apartment building swimming pools along with gyms and hair and nail salons, all with strict safety rules. It also would green-light outdoor religious services with restrictions and bring back youth sports but without games or spectators.
Health officials said San Diego County meets the new criteria to go beyond the takeout and curbside retail service now allowed, and supervisors approved submitting a request to be given that exception. Officials said restaurants could be serving diners as soon as Wednesday.
Newsom has made it clear that no county can move into stage three yet but also has said he wants to give more discretion to county governments and what they believe best reflects the interest of their residents.
State spokespeople did not immediately comment Wednesday on San Diego County’s request.
Associated Press writers Cuneyt Dil in Sacramento and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed.