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Butte County gives emergency OK for indoor dining amid wildfires

A crew works to save a home as the Bear fire chars the Berry Creek area of Butte County
A hand crew works to save a home as the Bear fire burns through the Berry Creek area of Butte County on Wednesday.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

In Butte County, where wildfires have killed at least three people, officials issued an emergency measure Thursday allowing restaurants to temporarily reopen for indoor dining.

“We are responding to what we feel is an emergency situation in our county due not only to the wildfire evacuees but also due to the air quality,” Butte County Public Health communications manager Lisa Almaguer said. “We are not recommending this be done but are providing this allowance for a temporary basis right now.”

The county — one of 33 on the state’s Tier 1 monitoring list for COVID-19 — did not wait to receive permission from the state to reopen restaurants, Almaguer said. Under current rules, counties in Tier 1 with a widespread risk for transmission may allow only outdoor dining.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, who represents much of Butte County, said he encouraged restaurants to defy the state’s guidelines because he thinks the poor air quality and pollution from the North Complex fires pose a greater health risk than the threat of catching the virus inside businesses that follow physical distancing requirements.

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With so many fires burning, millions of people in the Bay Area, Central Valley and parts of Southern California are breathing dangerous levels of particle pollution.

“Especially in the valley here, we’ve got really bad air quality from all the smoke and the ash in the air from the fires,” Gallagher said.

“It’s not packed like sardines in a restaurant,” he noted of the plans for indoor dining. “It’s with spacing and people masked when they go into the restaurant, sitting apart.”

The congressman wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that “because of the smoke and bad air quality, all restaurants should open for indoor dining beginning today. Don’t wait for permission, just do it.” He later amended his post to state it was not an official directive, but a strong suggestion.

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Indoor restaurants also give evacuees a place to eat a meal and avoid the unhealthy smoke outside. Many evacuees, Gallagher said, have been directed to a local fairgrounds and are sheltering in their cars.

In a call with the California Department of Public Health on Wednesday evening, state officials said they were considering allowing restaurants to open indoors in fire-affected areas.

But “we can’t wait to, you know, for the state to finally come around and say what should be common sense to everyone,” Gallagher said.

Restaurants must follow county guidelines in order to reopen. Compliance includes limiting capacity to 25%, positioning tables six feet apart and requiring staff and customers to wear face coverings.

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The measure will likely be in effect until air quality improves, Almaguer said.

Butte County was ravaged two years ago during the Camp fire — the state’s most destructive blaze, which largely destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. The Northern Complex fire, which has burned through more than 250,000 acres, is now the 10th-largest wildfire in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.


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