Despite having one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in California, Tulare County officials have voted to reopen more businesses before meeting the health criteria set by the state. The county could lose state disaster relief money as a result.
Tulare joins several rural communities in rebelling against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans for reopening the economy based on various health benchmarks designed to prevent new outbreaks of the coronavirus. Most of the counties to defy Newsom so far have been in remote areas with relatively few confirmed infections.
But Tulare, south of Fresno, is one of California’s hardest-hit counties. In all, it had confirmed 1,552 coronavirus infections and 73 deaths as of Wednesday afternoon.
The county’s death rate of 15.9 per 100,000 residents is one of the highest in the state, according to The Times’ data tracker. In comparison, Los Angeles County — the current center of the COVID-19 pandemic in California — has recorded more than 1,900 deaths, with a rate per 100,000 of 19.5.
Deaths in Tulare County from the disease caused by the coronavirus are also much higher than in neighboring counties in the Central Valley. Much larger Fresno County, to the north, has recorded 17 deaths, while Kings County has two, and Kern County 25.
Tulare has also seen a plateau, but not a decline, in the number of hospitalizations connected to the outbreak. There were 42 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, 11 of whom were in an intensive-care unit, according to the latest government reports.
Nonetheless, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to move the county all the way through Phase 3 of California’s reopening road map, which would allow movie theaters, shopping malls, salons, gyms and dine-in restaurants to reopen. In-person religious services also would be able to resume.
“The point is to begin opening up. That doesn’t mean we go back to how it used to be,” Supervisor Kuyler Crocker said in an interview Wednesday. “This is going to be one of those events that changes our lives forever. Business is not going to be done in same way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do business.”
Supervisor Peter Vander Poel said he believed vulnerable residents can be protected, while allowing businesses to make a measured return to normal. “I want to make sure this county doesn’t stay locked down from a state directive, preventing us from recovering even farther,” said Vander Poel.
Supervisor Amy Shuklian cast one of the two votes against the immediate reopening. “I feel like we shouldn’t be too hasty,” Shuklian said. “I thought this was rushed. We could have worked with the state and asked the governor for a variance.”
“We just took action to say we are going to reopen, and we’re going to go all the way through Phase 3 so we can get all the businesses in there,” Supervisor Dennis Townsend told KSEE-TV in Fresno.
The split decision came as the county reported a spike of 103 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four more deaths.
While most of the deaths in the county have been at nursing homes, there have been other substantial outbreaks. The largest has been at Ruiz Foods, a frozen-food packager in Dinuba. A total of 263 employees at the plant had caught the virus as of Tuesday, up 89 cases from just a week ago, the county reported.
None of the Ruiz Foods employees have died of the illness, according to Supervisor Vander Poel.
Some local leaders, including U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) have been bridling under the coronavirus restrictions since early in the outbreak. As government health experts in March urged residents to stay home, Nunes told Fox News viewers they should help local businesses by visiting restaurants and pubs.
Last week, Nunes took to Twitter to promote an article by a Visalia doctor that suggested damage could be done to public health — including increased suicides and other health threats untreated — by continuing with shutdown orders.
Earlier this week, Newsom announced loosened rules that he said would allow 53 of California’s 58 counties to move further into the second of four stages toward reopening.
Although he didn’t identify the five counties that couldn’t move forward, Newsom said Monday, “It’s not surprising, but there are concerns, as an example, in Tulare County [with] the skilled-nursing facilities.”
The county’s nursing homes in particular are struggling with the coronavirus. There have been 51 deaths and infection rates of nearly 30% among the county’s more than 1,100 nursing home residents. Local officials, though, have placed the blame on the state, which regulates the care facilities.
By their own admission, Tulare County officials acknowledge they don’t meet all the latest criteria for a more rapid reopening, falling short in the areas of new confirmed cases and positive test rates, as well as contact tracing staff.
The governor’s Office of Emergency Services previously sent letters warning those counties that they risked losing disaster funding — since those dollars are predicated on jurisdictions needing help in extraordinary circumstances.
Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci sent a similar missive to Tulare County officials Tuesday, saying their “problematic and concerning actions jeopardize public health and safety, not only within the county, but beyond, through community contact and spread.”
“If Tulare County believes there is no emergency, such that it can ignore the governor’s executive orders or the state public health officer’s directives,” Ghilarducci wrote, “the county would not be able to demonstrate that it was extraordinarily and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This could jeopardize its disaster funding.”
Tulare believed it stood to gain $48 million through the federal government’s coronavirus relief act, known as CARES. Supervisor Crocker said he is “very concerned” that the money could now be threatened, though the county will work with federal officials to get the funds
County Supervisor Eddie Valero, who voted against the wider reopening, referenced the letter in a Facebook post Wednesday morning.
“Sadly, we are estimated to lose many millions, and this will also have ramifications to our cities,” he wrote. “They, too, will not be receiving funding due to our county decision.”
With the board’s vote, he added, “we entered into uncharted territory, and we will now be a testing ground for legal fights and unprecedented battles for counties across this country.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.