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Fearing frat parties, big family groups, Yolo County caps social gatherings at 16 people

Catie Fee, left, and Vivi Kirsh visit in downtown Davis, Calif.
Catie Fee, left, and Vivi Kirsh visit in downtown Davis, Calif., in April while practicing social distancing and wearing face masks. Yolo County, where Davis is located, is capping social gatherings at 16 people.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Officials in Yolo County are taking California’s coronavirus restrictions a step further by placing a hard limit on socially distant gatherings. A new health order issued Wednesday said celebrations and get-togethers must be capped at 16 people.

The Northern California county, which is primarily rural but includes the university town of Davis and parts of Greater Sacramento, enacted the new rules in an effort to avoid sliding back into the purple tier of the state’s color-coded reopening system, which indicates the highest widespread risk of local infection.

Yolo County has been in the red tier, the second-most restrictive coronavirus category, since Sept. 29.

The move is an enhancement of California’s own revised guidelines, which were issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 9. In advance of the holidays, the changes permit social gatherings for the first time since the state shut down in March, but restrict groups to three households or fewer.

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Yolo County spokeswoman Jenny Tan said local public health officials wanted to be more specific because the term “household” can apply to multigenerational homes, which are often composed of many relatives and family members, or even fraternity and sorority houses on the UC Davis campus.

“When the state said ‘maximum three households,’ well, that could mean 50 or 60 people are gathered,” Tan said. “We had to be smart about this. We know that people are going to gather, so how can we do it more safely?”

Yolo County’s health order includes other state guidelines, including two-hour time limits for gatherings, and requirements that meet-ups be held outdoors. The county’s 16-person cap will account for everyone present, including hosts and attendees — although officials said they would rather people not congregate at all.

“The more people interact and the longer they interact, the higher the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the order says. “The Yolo County Health Officer strongly discourages gatherings of any size.”

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At current levels, the 220,000-person county is seeing 5.3 new coronavirus cases per day for every 100,000 residents, according to the California Department of Public Health, and 2.7% of its coronavirus tests return positive. That’s up from 2.4% two weeks ago.

The county has had more than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 to date, and 58 people have died.

Despite creeping case rates, not all Yolo County residents are on board with the new guidelines. Multiple residents on the county’s Facebook page said they don’t see the difference between being around people in big-box stores (an activity that is currently allowed) and gathering with loved ones at home. Others said they won’t be following the recommendations at all.

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Gary Sandy, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, said that while most people he encounters are in agreement with the guidelines, he is often “flabbergasted” by the degree to which they are politicized online.

“We seem to have lost this whole sense of public health in general, and how you would get to a pandemic other than the way we’re trying to do it,” he said.

Sandy recalled people eagerly lining up to receive the sugar cube polio vaccine when he was in elementary school.

“Everyone understood this was part of their civic responsibility, and everyone understood that you were doing it to safeguard not only yourself but your entire community from the spread of a disease,” he said. “Somehow, that has really gone off the tracks.”

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The changes — expected this week — will allow family entertainment centers to open outdoors; eliminate a requirement that customers at wineries and breweries have to make reservations; and remove the food requirement for wineries.

The new rules will be enforced primarily through educational outreach and a complaint-driven approach, Sandy said, with violations considered a misdemeanor. The county previously passed an ordinance that allows for $10,000 fines for businesses that don’t comply with health orders.

The restrictions will also apply to business gatherings (including holiday parties) and industries that manage gatherings as part of their operations, such as wedding venues, restaurants and religious services. In all instances, attendees must wear face coverings unless eating or drinking and maintain a distance of at least six feet or more from people they don’t live with.

Though there has been some resistance online, other Yolo County residents said the new limitations are a smart move.

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“In reality, they are not quite restrictive, although many are making it seem that way,” 15-year resident Juan Pi-Sánchez said Thursday.

Pi-Sánchez said his family members have “severely” socially distanced themselves and have been careful to follow the county’s guidelines since the start of the pandemic.

“We are interested in contributing to the well-being of others,” he said.


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