Newsom warns defiant counties they could lose coronavirus cash for reopening early

Taryn Luna
California Gov. Gavin Newsom.  (Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration sent a clear warning this week to rural counties defying his state's stay-at-home order to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus: Keep it up, and you'll lose disaster funding.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, sent nearly identical letters dated May 7 to Yuba, Sutter and Modoc counties, where local officials lifted restrictions and allowed gyms, restaurants, shopping malls, hair salons and other businesses to open their doors again, ahead of the state's plans.

Ghilarducci said disaster funding is predicated on jurisdictions needing help in extraordinary circumstances, and if the counties believe there's no emergency and choose to defy the governor's order, then they won't be able to prove they need such funds.

"Further, disaster assistance programs prohibit a jurisdiction from receiving funding for a condition caused by its own negligence," he wrote in the letter to Yuba County. "Should Yuba County experience a surge in COVID-19 cases as a result of hasty and careless actions, the county may be ineligible for reimbursement."

Ghilarducci directed the counties to confirm their intent to comply with the state's order and a new framework that allows some areas to move ahead of the administration's four-stage reopening plan, which gradually returns California to a sense of normalcy beginning with the return of business operations deemed to pose a lower risk of spreading coronavirus. Under Stage 2 rules, counties must submit an application declaring that the presence of the virus is limited or nonexistent in their jurisdictions and they've met certain requirements to prepare for a future surge in infections before opening additional businesses.

Yuba and Sutter counties confirmed that they received the letter and said they understand the governor's directive. In a joint statement, the counties said they are "working to do what is best for the overall health of our communities and coordinating with governor’s representatives on achieving balance with his order," and look forward to discussing their Stage 2 application.

Modoc County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The rebellion against the coronavirus restrictions in the Northern California counties is symbolic of the governor's struggle to convince local officials and residents across the state to adhere to his orders as the economy tanks and millions lose their jobs.

His administration's ability to limit the spread of the virus in California has only added to a chorus of skeptics, particularly in rural counties with few cases or in conservative enclaves such as Orange County, where some have questioned why the state needs to remain under restrictions. But as Newsom begins to ease the order, health experts warn that moving too quickly could result in a second surge of cases.

In a state of nearly 40 million, roughly 4,500 people were hospitalized with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 diagnosis as of Thursday, according to the California Department of Public Health.

As of Friday, 64,519 people in California had tested positive, and 2,632 had died.

Modoc County, home to fewer than 10,000 people, became the first to openly defy the governor's order on May 1 by allowing all businesses, churches and schools in the northeast corner of the state to open again with modifications and a requirement to keep people six feet apart. At the time, the rural area had not reported any confirmed cases of the virus and advised residents aged 65 and older or with underlying health conditions to stay home.

Days later, Yuba-Sutter Health Officer Dr. Phuong Luu cited guidance from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security when she announced that restaurants, retail operations, shopping malls, construction, real estate, agriculture, gyms and fitness studios, hair salons and barbershops, nail salons, spas, massage therapy centers and tattoo parlors were permitted to reopen in the counties on May 4. The businesses must similarly limit the number of people inside to ensure six feet of distance between patrons and must provide hand sanitizer. The counties are also requiring people to wear face coverings in public.

Luu followed up with a letter to businesses two days after the restrictions were removed, admonishing some for not taking precautions to properly protect patrons.

Newsom lashed out at the counties Tuesday, calling their decision to reopen a "big mistake."

"They’re putting their public at risk," Newsom said. "They’re putting our progress at risk. These are real exceptions. The overwhelming majority of Californians are playing by the rules, doing the right thing.”

At a news conference on Friday, Newsom said 33 salons that reopened in counties that moved ahead have decided to shut down in recent days when contacted by state officials.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control visited multiple businesses in Yuba and Sutter counties earlier this week and warned restaurants that they could lose state licensing to serve alcohol if they don’t close down their dining rooms.

"We'll just see more of that if people get ahead of themselves, and again, I just don't want to put businesses in that position," Newsom said.

Despite no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time, officials in Modoc, Yuba and Sutter counties declared local states of emergency in March in order to seek reimbursement for their preparations to protect public health.

President Trump approved California's request to declare a major disaster in the state on March 22, opening up aid opportunities for counties. Under the system, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services grants county requests for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds.

In the letter to the counties, Ghilarducci said he hopes they "will act in good faith, in the best interests of its residents and for the safety of all Californians."

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.