San Mateo County pleads with outsiders to stop visiting to shop and dine

A San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs specialist hands out protective face masks to people in Daly City.
San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs specialist Mitzy de la Pena Medina, center, hands out face masks in Daly City on Sept. 17. San Mateo County officials are asking outsiders to stop crossing county lines to shop and eat.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

As the California coronavirus surge worsens, all but two regions in the state are under stay-at-home orders triggered by dangerously low hospitalization numbers.

Officials hoped sobering statistics and stern public health guidelines would compel people to stay home, but instead, some Californians are crossing county lines for everything from haircuts to dinner.

And at least one area — San Mateo County in the Bay Area — is pleading with people to stop.


“We are in a public health crisis with alarming rates of COVID-19 transmission,” San Mateo County Manager Mike Callagy said in a statement. “While we absolutely support our local business serving our local community, we do not want nonessential travel and nonessential activities such as crossing counties for an outdoor restaurant or salon. This is the time to stay close to home.”

Counties that dip below 15% ICU capacity must close, per a statewide order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom. While San Mateo County is currently in the most restrictive purple tier of the state’s color-coded COVID-19 blueprint — which indicates the most widespread risk of transmission — the region’s ICU numbers have not dropped below the 15% threshold that would trigger the stay-at-home order.

As of Tuesday morning, the Bay Area had 15.8% ICU availability, according to the most recent state data. By comparison, Southern California’s capacity is at 2.7%, while San Joaquin Valley has 0% availability.

Bay Area health officials have issued a stay-at-home order effective Sunday, fearing that COVID-19 patients could otherwise overwhelm hospitals.

Dec. 4, 2020

San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow said last week that the county would not join others in the region that had declared pre-emptive stay-at-home orders in an attempt to flatten the spreading coronavirus surge.

He cited several reasons, including a lack of hard data connecting some business activities to virus transmission, and the need for people to take personal responsibility over their actions and risks.


“There is not a good or standard method for understanding ICU capacity on a county level, much less a regional level,” Morrow wrote. “Basing such extreme decisions on non-standardized and poorly understood metrics seems fraught to me.”

But the county is now surrounded by areas under voluntary stay-at-home orders, including Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties. The decision for San Mateo County to remain open was not without controversy.

“When all the neighboring counties have been issued a stay-at-home order, it is foolish to think people will not be coming to San Mateo to shop, eat, etc.,” San Bruno resident Debra Marks said Tuesday.

Marks said she is aware of the painful effect stay-at-home orders have on small businesses but suggested the county needs to send a stronger message.

“With the trends being what they have been, the order should be issued,” she said.

San Francisco begins administering the COVID-19 vaccine to frontline healthcare workers, distributing a first batch of 12,675 doses to hospitals across the city.

Dec. 15, 2020

Others, however, applauded the county’s move.

“I 100% appreciate your decision and appreciate your logic,” one resident wrote in a Facebook response to Morrow’s announcement. “At a time when so many counties seem to just simply jump on any available bandwagon, I find your analysis refreshing!”

Morrow is far from the only California county official to question stay-at-home mandates. Earlier this month, a judge ordered Los Angeles County to show evidence to justify its outdoor dining ban and later rebuked the state’s orders.

Meanwhile, as people argue over the effectiveness of business closures and dining bans, coronavirus infection rates and hospitalizations are climbing. Over the last seven days, San Mateo has reported an average of 354 new cases per day, a 120% increase from two weeks ago, according to The Times tracker.

San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa implored outsiders to stop visiting.

“We have become a potential regional coronavirus hub,” Canepa said in a televised interview with CBS San Francisco. “We’ve seen the long lines. We’ve seen people packed together, and so my message to the greater community is, ‘You respect your stay-at-home order in your own county. Please respect our ‘stay out’ order in San Mateo County.’”

That “order” is not official — people can still visit San Mateo County — but officials said more restrictions are likely as ICU capacity continues to shrink.

“If and when the governor issues the regional stay-at-home order for the Bay Area,” Morrow said, “San Mateo County will support it.”