RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — As Riverside County health officials reported additional coronavirus cases and deaths Friday, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors is slated Tuesday to revisit a plan for reopening the local economy that would flout state guidelines.
Riverside University Health System reported five more deaths tied to the virus on Friday, bringing the number of fatalities to 1,231 since the start of the pandemic.
The aggregate number of COVID-19 infections recorded since the public health documentation period began in early March reached 59,934 on Friday, compared to 59,488 the day before, RUHS reported.
According to the Emergency Management Department, 130 people are hospitalized countywide with virus symptoms, an increase of 11 since Thursday, and that figure includes 39 intensive care unit patients, one fewer than a day ago.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will reconsider a proposal to replace the state's tiered system with a county-designed accelerated reopening plan that would possibly wrap up by the end of this month, permitting all businesses, houses of worship, offices, wineries, bars and other entities to open with health safeguards in place.
The county Executive Office has said the state could withhold millions of dollars in grants and other allocations if the county takes an independent path. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment on what may happen if the board approves the self-directed reopening plan.
Under the tentative plan introduced by Supervisor Jeff Hewitt during the Sept. 22 board meeting, the county would take a self-directed approach to removing restrictions on the private sector and fully opening by the start of November.
"We're going to be operating in an economy that's going to be crushed. We need to move forward on this and stop putting it off," Hewitt said during the meeting, venting frustration at the governor's and California Department of Public Health's changes to reopening formulas since March.
Supervisors Karen Spiegel and Kevin Jeffries expressed support for the concept but requested a delay in voting until Oct. 6 to give the Executive Office time to evaluate the potential funding losses that might ensue if the state frowns on the county's autonomous initiative and ignores the tiered structure announced by the governor in August.
"Public health officers should not be dictating the terms and conditions of our fundamental rights," Jeffries said. "When I had pneumonia a few years ago, I did not turn over my business and livelihood to my physician. Only the businesses and residents of this county can open it again."
The county has moved out of the state's most restrictive "purple tier" to the "red tier," permitting houses of worship, gyms, movie theaters, restaurants and schools to operate — with limitations and other protocols that must be adhered to.
However, under Hewitt's plan, which mirrors the Community Action Plan that the county submitted to the state in August, the state's next two tiers — the orange and yellow — would be replaced with a county-designed two-phase system, which would begin on Oct. 13.
Under Phase II, limited indoor activities would be permitted for all dining establishments, cultural celebrations and weddings, but they would be capped at 25 percent capacity, or 100-person attendance, whichever is less. Phase III would follow on Oct. 27, with bars, breweries, wineries, "non-essential" offices and family entertainment centers permitted to operate with safety measures in place.
Supervisors Manuel Perez and Chuck Washington oppose the plan. They both indicated last month that there was too much at risk for the county to divorce itself from the state's directives.
According to the Executive Office, the county could stand to lose millions of dollars in allocations due from the state, including money for the Homekey homeless mitigation programs and additional federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act funding.
Future California Office of Emergency Services disaster relief grants might also be canceled if the governor's office takes a hard line with the county, officials said.
The county plan would be administered by CEO George Johnson, who would make final determinations on whether the phased reopening should proceed on schedule or be delayed, depending on whether COVID-19 infections tick up, remain flat or decline.
During the first hearing on Hewitt's proposal, more than 70 people spoke, overwhelmingly in favor of booting the state's tiered system and immediately abolishing public health lockdowns.
"A quarantine is to isolate people who are sick," John Hussey of Riverside said. "But what they're doing is isolating everybody and punishing business people."
"Are we still living in the United States of America?" Laurie Ibarra said. "Every person is essential. Breathing without a mask is essential. It is our constitutional right to reopen Riverside County."
Loren Dean said the people in the state and nation had been served a "steady buffet of fear" over COVID-19, but "the danger is nowhere near the prediction."
"You must put the liberties of Riverside County residents first. Be brave," he said.
Several ministers and nonprofit supporters pointed out that food banks and other charities are struggling to keep up with demand for supplies from people thrown out of work by the state's lockdowns. Speakers also noted an uptick in suicides, suicide attempts, depression and child abuse since stay-at- home orders were implemented.
Hewitt's original plan centered on allowing a coronavirus testing positivity rate up to 14 percent, and anything above that would warrant returning to increased health regulations. According to the most recent California Department of Public Health data, the number of screenings that reflect positive tests for COVID-19 countywide is 4.8 percent.
—City News Service