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With no coronavirus cases, a California county defies Gov. Newsom and reopens

The old county courthouse in the Modoc County seat of Alturas, Calif.
(Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

Modoc County, which has fewer than 9,000 residents and reported zero cases of the coronavirus, is set to become the first county in California to ease stay-at-home rules Friday, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s urging to keep them in place for now.

The remote county in far Northern California, which borders Oregon and Nevada, announced that businesses, schools and churches may reopen starting Friday, as long as people stay six feet apart.

“Our businesses are dying and people need to be able to feed their children and pay their rent,” said Heather Hadwick, the deputy director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services. “We live a different life than the rest of California. We’re very rural and naturally socially distanced in our everyday lives.”

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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 will be allowed to host diners, but only at half the businesses’ capacity. People 65 and older and residents with underlying health conditions will still be required to stay home except to conduct essential business, and large gatherings where people cannot stay six feet apart will still be banned.

The Niles Hotel in Alturas, seat of Modoc County in far northeastern California, where there have been no coronavirus cases reported,
( Carol M. Highsmith / Getty Images)

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

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“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.”

Officials have said maintaining public health will be a top priority.

“We’re doing it very strategically and in stages just as the governor is recommending and we feel confident in that,” Modoc County Sheriff Tex Dowdy told KRCR-TV News. “The county in itself, the businesses are moving forward without us, so it was in our best interest to get some framework out there and some guidelines for them to follow.”

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Just because the county has started to reopen doesn’t mean it’s back to business as usual, though.

“We encourage you all to continue to practice social distancing, good hand hygiene and to comply with the other recommendations of our public health department and with the reopening letter that Modoc County has issued, as well,” Modoc Medical Center Chief Executive Kevin Kramer said in a video statement Friday. “If you are elderly or immuno-compromised, please stay at home as much as possible.”

Restaurant owner Jodie Larranaga told the Associated Press that employees were preparing to open Friday and sending out word to customers.

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“My bar tables are already far apart. But if people pull their stools together, I’m not going to stop them,” said Larranaga, who owns the Brass Rail. “As far as I’m concerned, right or wrong, that’s their choice. They are adults.”

Reopening Modoc schools, however, doesn’t seem to be on the agenda just yet, officials said earlier this week.

A hay barn in Modoc County, which has fewer than 9,000 residents and planned to ease stay-at-home restrictions on Friday.
( Carol M. Highsmith / Getty Images)

“School districts and [the] Modoc County Office of Education have and will continue to work closely with Modoc County Public Health, other county agencies and stakeholder groups on plans that would bring students and staff safely back to campuses,” county Supt. Mike Martin wrote in a community message Wednesday.

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However, “at this time, there are no return dates set by any school district” in the county, he added. Martin could not be reached for additional comment Friday morning.

Not every institution that could reopen plans to do so, though.

“It’s an unsure thing,” said Ken Entwistle, senior pastor of GracePoint Church of the Nazarene in Alturas. “We, of course, want to open things back up but, at the same point, it’s that unknown.”

Entwistle said the stance of the Nazarene denomination is to follow the state’s order — which means he’ll continue streaming services and devotionals via Facebook Live.

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“We need to pay attention to the prompting of the spirit and we need to look toward our authorities for some answers or some OKs,” he said. “For us, Jesus Christ is the absolute authority.”

Newsom again 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], where we can begin a Phase 2, beginning to reopen sectors of our economy that are low risk?” Newsom said.

The Modoc County Library in Cedarville. Social-distancing guidelines will remain in effect even as stay-at-home orders are relaxed, county officials said.
( Carol M. Highsmith / Getty Images)

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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, which caught some educators off-guard.

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

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

It’s not yet clear how the state will respond to Modoc’s move. The governor’s media office did not immediately answer a request for comment Friday.

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When it comes to matters of public health, the state has wide powers to enact regulations and restrictions, according to Julie Nice, a constitutional law professor at the University of San Francisco.

Counties and other local governments “may enforce health and safety and sanitation rules,” she said, “so long as they do not conflict with the state’s general law.”

That doesn’t seem to be the case with what Modoc County has proposed, she said Friday.

“From everything I can tell from the governor’s orders and what the county has said it plans to do, it appears to directly conflict with state law,” she said. “And I think, as a matter of governmental power, the county’s likely to lose against the state.”

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If such a conflict exists, the county could conceivably argue that the state’s rules are unreasonable, but Nice said that would likely be an uphill battle.

“Just thinking logically, a contagious infection does not respect county boundaries,” she said. “And so I would be very surprised if any court would find the state’s statewide rules to be unreasonable, because that’s a very low bar.”

Should Newsom decide to intervene, Nice said the governor could negotiate directly with county officials to hammer out a resolution or, barring that, the state could turn to the courts to block the reopening plan.

“The general police power of a state, and particularly when it’s applied in the public health context, puts the courts in a position of really being extremely reluctant to second-guess the judgment calls of the scientific experts,” she said.


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