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This California county might defy the state and lift stay-at-home order Friday

Deer cross Main Street in Alturas, Calif., in 2019.
Deer cross Main Street in Alturas, in California’s Modoc County, in December 2019.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

For weeks, some small California communities that have seen little impact from the coronavirus have been lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow them to ease stay-at-home restrictions.

Newsom so far has refused, saying conditions are still too risky.

On Friday, one remote county might ease restrictions anyway.

Modoc County, in the northeastern corner of California, is one of the least-populated counties in the state, with fewer than 9,000 residents. It plans to allow all businesses, schools and churches to reopen starting Friday, as long as people stay six feet apart, according to a statement signed by the county health officer, sheriff-coroner, chair of the Board of Supervisors, and other county officials.

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“The health and safety of Modoc County residents is and continues to be our number one priority. This reopening plan was made in the best interest of residents’ physical, mental and economic health,” the statement said.

Restaurants and bars would be allowed to host diners but only at half the businesses’ capacity. Seniors 65 or older, or residents with underlying health conditions, would still be required to stay home as much as possible, only leaving home for essential business, and large gatherings where people cannot stay six feet from one another would still be banned.

Modoc County is one of four California counties that have not reported a single case of coronavirus infection.

“This is a plan, this is not an order,” the Modoc County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. “This is simply what we are proposing that is eligible to open if preventative measures are possible. We want the option to be given to business owners so that when they feel the time is right, they can make that decision. ... We need to do this in a smart and strategic way to keep us all healthy.”

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Under the plan, the county might revert back to a full stay-at-home order if two or more coronavirus infections are found, if the county death rate substantially increases, or if a medical surge in patients overloads county medical facilities.

The statement said Modoc County has the resources to perform contact tracing — conduct disease investigations of those found to be infected and identify their close contacts, so they can be quarantined and kept away from other people to see if they become sick.

California officials still have a lot to do before they can meet the benchmarks that Gov. Gavin Newsom set to reopen the economy and lift restrictions on daily life.

It’s unclear whether the reopening will result in a legal showdown between Modoc County and Newsom, whose statewide stay-at-home order supersedes local laws.

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Newsom urged Californians on Wednesday to stay home and practice physical distancing, saying they should avoid spoiling the progress the state has made in the coronavirus fight as he prepares to allow some businesses to reopen gradually.

“Why put ourselves in that position when we are just a week or two away from significant modifications of our stay-at-home [order],” Newsom said, “where we can begin a Phase 2, beginning to reopen sectors of our economy that are low risk?”

This week, the governor unveiled the broad outline of a plan to slowly ease restrictions on Californians in four stages in the weeks and months ahead. He also announced that schools could potentially reopen in July or early August, catching some educators off-guard.

Newsom introduced the four-phase plan weeks after he unveiled six criteria California must meet before gradually lifting restrictions — including more-widespread testing, increased hospital capacity, and plans to safely reopen businesses as well as prevent and prepare for the possibility of a second wave of infections.

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He has not offered a specific timeline for the changes to be implemented.

Business groups, nonprofits, healthcare associations and some legislators are criticizing some moves the California governor made in response to coronavirus outbreak.

Other communities have also been clamoring to ease stay-at-home rules.

Elected officials in Butte, Glenn, Tehama, Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties in Northern California are among those who have asked Newsom to ease restrictions.

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They say that cases and deaths in their region appear to have stabilized and that the stay-at-home order should be modified in those areas to help restart the economy.

Last week, San Luis Obispo County officials asked Newsom to begin a slow and gradual reopening process, one they say is guided by science but also recognizes that their region may be in better shape to ease rules faster than more populous areas such as Los Angeles County and Silicon Valley.

A group of cities in Stanislaus County last week sent Newsom a letter proposing steps to loosen restrictions, saying “a reopening process that may fit, and make sense, for Los Angeles and our neighboring Bay Area regions does not work for our county. Stanislaus County is nothing like the regions of San Francisco or Los Angeles.”

The cities suggested a first phase of reopening parks, places of worship, restaurants, car washes and some other businesses, all following strict social distancing rules.

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Nineteen counties from Humboldt to Tuolumne have recorded no fatalities from the virus. And even moderately populated counties such as Fresno and Monterey have experienced only single-digit death tolls.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, has had more than 1,000 deaths.


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