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On brink of COVID-19 regression, Riverside County revises reopening plan

Jeff Hewitt speaks into a microphone at a Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting.
Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, shown in a video screen grab, was the lone vote against the reopening plan.
(Riverside County)

After a lengthy and at times tense public meeting, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday in favor of a revised COVID-19 reopening plan, a modified version of a proposal that would have put the county on a faster track to reopening than the state recommends.

The modified plan is still a risky move for Riverside: The county is teetering on the brink of regressing to the most restrictive purple tier of the state’s four-part color-coded reopening blueprint, indicating a widespread risk of local infection.

The county remained in Tier 2, the red level, when changes were announced Tuesday. With a positivity rate — the rate of positive results among all COVID-19 tests performed — of 5% and an adjusted case rate of 7.6 positive infections per 100,000 people, the risk of spreading the illness is substantial, according to state metrics.

The decision passed in a 4-1 vote, with Supervisors Karen Spiegel, Kevin Jeffries, Manuel Perez and Chuck Washington in favor of the move. Supervisor Jeff Hewitt was the lone vote against the plan — because he wants even more local control over reopening guidelines than those put forth by the state.

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“If there’s too many cooks, it spoils the broth,” Hewitt said during the meeting. “We don’t need the state, who knows nothing about Riverside County. ... We can do the things we need. We have that ability.”

The Board of Supervisors approved new guidelines to reopen Riverside County at a quicker pace than the state allows. But not immediately.

The new, more watered-down guidelines are in almost complete alignment with the state’s, said Brooke Federico, public information officer for Riverside County. The only deviation affects two business-related activities not yet addressed by the state, Federico said: hotel meetings, such as conferences and conventions, and wedding receptions.

“Those two activities are not in the current framework for reopening, however they are very similar to dine-in restaurants,” she said. “[The board] directed county staff to work with the state ... for additional guidance and approval.”

Hotel and tourism groups have testified that current closures are jeopardizing business, said Perez, who noted that the “meeting industry” had begun moving to other states that allow larger gatherings and that hospitality in the Coachella Valley was particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Hewitt said it was supervisors’ responsibility to weigh public health information along with the needs of businesses and the community.

“We’re destroying our way of life, our standard of living, and putting so many people into abject poverty and despair,” he said of the current shutdown orders.

Still, local public health officials are concerned that reopening could continue to increase the county’s rate of infection.

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Riverside County Public Health Officer Cameron Kaiser said during Tuesday’s meeting that red tier conditions were expected to last through the end of the week but noted the county was inching toward dangerous territory.

“There is no good way to say it, but both our positivity rate and case rate are still rising,” Kaiser said. “If the trend continues, we are informed by the state, we will face the possibility of going backward.”

Even as coronavirus infections seem to be ebbing in the state, officials warn that transmission rates are creeping up, possibly presaging a surge in cases.

Jose Araballo, spokesman for the county’s Public Health Department, said the agency couldn’t make policy, regardless of any fluctuations or increases in COVID-19 case rates, and that it would gear its efforts toward whatever the board decided.

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But the battle between the virus and the economy that has been playing out across much of the nation was very much present during the 5½-hour meeting, when numerous residents pleaded with supervisors to reopen the county.

“The people who oppose the reopening are still getting paid, so how long for the rest of us?” said one resident who identified herself as Tina D. “How long for our kids, how long for our churches? ... The governor’s bar keeps rising. We the people feel like we’ve been sold out as you’ve given into this fear.”

Helen Joy, a 23-year emergency room nurse, said she knew COVID-19 was “not a hoax” but also argued in favor of reopening.

“I choose not to be selfish,” she said.

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But the original, more aggressive reopening plan some residents wanted could have jeopardized up to $114 million in state and federal funding, according to Riverside County CEO George Johnson.

“If there is a deviation from following the state’s guidance,” Johnson said, “that’s where the risk comes into play.”

Spiegel also expressed concern that reopening could provide businesses with a “false sense of hope,” particularly if they reopen and are then forced to close.

Many business licenses, such as liquor licenses and cosmetic licenses, are state-issued, she said, and any deviations from state guidelines could expose them to retaliation.

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“If we tick off the governor, we can’t help any business who loses its liquor license by going against the state,” Spiegel said. “I just hope that everybody understands that.”

The newer version of the reopening plan should help keep the county in compliance with state guidelines and prevent the loss of funds, officials said.

And although Spiegel emphasized that Riverside’s reopening plan was mostly in line with the state’s, she also noted that there would be a continued emphasis on public health and safety.

“Businesses owners overwhelmingly want to open, while people who are health-oriented tend to be more fearful of possible spreading,” Spiegel said on the phone Wednesday. “But we have always said that we need to wear masks, keep our distance, wash our hands. If you don’t like it, do it for somebody else. Do it for businesses to open. Do it for your family.”

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Hewitt, who drafted the original proposal two weeks ago, said the motion to remove target dates from the revised reopening plan was what ultimately pushed him to vote against it.

“Am I the person that is pushing more for opening up than anybody else? By far,” he said. “But this is the single biggest issue of our time. We have got to get back to being prosperous.”


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