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After hours of debate, Riverside County postpones vote to reopen amid coronavirus outbreak

After more than eight hours of debate Tuesday, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to table its decision on whether to rescind the county’s public health orders and instead opted to wait until Gov. Gavin Newsom provides more guidelines later this week.

The supervisors voted to meet again Friday.

For the record:
6:12 AM, May. 06, 2020 An earlier version of this article stated that 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington recommended that the vote be postponed until next week. First District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries made the suggestion.

Officials met to discuss whether the county should lift local orders that closed schools, restricted golf courses, and required people to stay six feet apart and wear facial coverings while grocery shopping and during other essential activities.

Cameron Kaiser, the county’s public health officer, had put the restrictions in place until June 19. Supervisors V. Manuel Perez and Karen Spiegel brought the proposal to rescind to the board.

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A crowd of more than 200 people, including a group of protesters in favor of the rescission, attended the board meeting. Dozens of speakers offered testimony — both for and against easing rules.

Protesters who want public health orders rescinded watch and listen to video monitors during the Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting on May 5 in Riverside, Calif.
Protesters who want public health orders rescinded watch and listen to video monitors during the Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting on May 5 in Riverside, Calif. Many were not wearing masks.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Some called the restrictions arbitrary, onerous and “unconstitutional, flat-out.” Cosmetologists said they wanted to go back to work. One woman said she knows three people who lost friends to suicide during the quarantine, suggesting those deaths were a result of stress from the lockdown. Others said they wanted to be able to attend church.

“I would rather die of a virus than lose my freedoms,” said a speaker who identified herself as a nurse, wearing an American flag bandanna around her neck.

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Others, including teachers and labor union members, cautioned against lifting restrictions too quickly. Some said opening without the appropriate safety measures could trigger a second, even deadlier wave of infections. Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors called in to say rescinding mandates that the public wear facial coverings will result in more infections.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, who was welcomed to the microphone with cheers from the audience, said the county does not have the resources to enforce “unreasonable orders.”

“From the beginning, I told you I would not enforce the stay-at-home order partly because I trusted our residents’ ability to do the right thing without the fear of being arrested. I knew that they could be trusted to act as responsible adults and I was correct,” he said. “I refuse to make criminals out of business owners, single moms and otherwise healthy individuals who are exercising their constitutional rights.”

Over the phone, county Treasurer Jon Christensen said: “I’m very concerned. We have to get our businesses back open.”

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The latest changes to the Newsom’s four-stage plan to gradually reopen the state expand decision-making at the local level, allowing some communities to move further ahead into the second phase of the reopening process at their own pace and open more businesses beyond those outlined in the statewide policy.

But counties must first submit “containment plans” that meet certain requirements for hospital beds, testing kits, and the ability to track infected people and trace their contacts, Newsom said.

Other local orders that are more restrictive than statewide reopening plans would supersede any changes the governor makes, Newsom said. Riverside County has some of the strictest public health orders in the state.

The county has the second-highest number of infections, behind Los Angeles County, with 4,454 positive COVID-19 cases and 184 deaths as of Monday evening. More than 56,000 people have been tested and nearly 2,000 people have recovered from the virus.

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During Tuesday’s marathon meeting, Kaiser and other health officials acknowledged that the county’s coronavirus numbers were not as dire as they had initially projected — 65,000 coronavirus cases by May — mostly due to the restrictions they put in place early. But they warned supervisors that if orders were lifted too soon, they’d run the risk of impeding the county’s progress.

“A job and a paycheck are just as important to public health as anything else,” Kaiser said. “The presence of us [here] is not to say that we should not reopen, it’s to say that the orders that are in place ... enhance our ability to serve the public and to reopen those businesses responsibly.”

Due to a recent increase in personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, the opening of eight additional testing sites and the large quantity of available hospital beds, local experts said that they think the county can prove that they are prepared for the second phase of reopening. They also said that by continuing to require residents to wear masks and practice social distancing — both of which aren’t statewide requirements — the county can make its case to reopen stronger.

Ultimately, Perez agreed with health officials and changed his mind on the matter. Late in the meeting, he asked his colleagues to vote against his initial recommendation. “I think we can have a win-win,” he said.

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“I say we leave our orders as they are.... We are in a great position to demonstrate to the governor that we can move into Phase 2 hopefully as soon as Friday and then maybe even fast-track ourselves into Phase 3,” Perez said. “Come Friday, we’re ready to move forward.”

In response to Perez’s recommendation, 1st District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries recommended that the vote be postponed until next week, but 5th District Supervisor Jeff Hewitt warned that a decision was needed sooner. Following Newsom’s address on Thursday, the Board of Supervisors will meet on Friday afternoon to vote on whether to rescind all of the county’s public health orders.

Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian, Taryn Luna and Phil Willon contributed to this report.


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