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Editorial: Dear Orange County: Coronavirus is the problem, not the efforts to stop its spread

Protesters demonstrate against stay-at-home orders April 17 in Huntington Beach.
Huntington Beach protesters demonstrate against stay-at-home orders put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus in April.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Faced with a third and potentially biggest wave of COVID-19 infections, Gov. Gavin Newsom is ratcheting restrictions back up on California residents and businesses to try to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and the economy from sustaining an even deeper blow.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors reacted with outrage — not at the surge in infections, but at the state’s effort to tamp it down. But then, this is a group that has always treated COVID-19 more like a temporary inconvenience than a public health threat.

Maybe the county could be forgiven, in the earliest days of the pandemic, for its lackluster response. While numbers surged in New York and then in Los Angeles, the infection rate in Orange County was relatively low and growing incrementally.

That lasted only so long. As the cases piled up, the county increasingly found itself out of whack with how the region and the state were handling the pandemic, and not in a good way.

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In May, the county refused to enforce Newsom’s shutdown orders for beaches. Supervisors continually sparred with the county’s chief health officer, Nichole Quick, about safety measures, including the restrictions she sought to place on restaurants and the mask mandate she favored. Undermined by the supervisors and assailed by death threats from a rebellious public, Quick stepped down from her post in June. At the time, surrounding counties were requiring masks.

Michelle Steel, chairwoman of the board, continually mischaracterized the COVID-19 situation in the county, according to a July report by the nonprofit newsroom Voice of OC. She described Orange County as having the lowest disease and fatality rates for COVID among its neighboring counties while the opposite was true. She called the Centers for Disease Control’s advice not to put masks on pets “species discrimination.”

Last summer, following the lead of President Trump, the county Board of Education advised schools to reopen without masks or social distancing, ignoring the recommendations of its own staff and without evidence to ground its recommendation.

So it should be no surprise that Orange County officials were among the loudest protesting the county’s shift this week to the state’s most restrictive tier, a fate shared by most California counties. Yes, Orange County has among the lower positivity rates in Southern California, but it’s still high enough to merit the new designation.

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Part of the problem is that, rather than trying to protect county residents, its leaders have been toadying to COVID-safety skeptics, such as the protesters who brought signs, but not face masks, to closed beaches. Wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance from others is politely encouraged in the county as good-for-you measures, as though they were aerobic exercises, instead of mandated as necessary, evidence-based public health measures that protect everyone, not just the mask wearer. As a result, mask wearing in the county is far less common than in Los Angeles. County leaders also declined to enforce the rules aimed at limiting the coronavirus’ spread in restaurants.

Politically, it seems to have worked. This month, Steel beat incumbent Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) in the 48th Congressional District, which includes part of anti-mask hotspot Huntington Beach. At the local level, a couple of safety-mocking council candidates also won.

It’s not just Orange County. Even as Americans as a whole showed strong distaste for how Trump has handled, or rather mishandled, the pandemic (and he lost in Orange County as well), down-ballot candidates who played to the COVID-is-no-big-deal crowd won their races in many spots around the nation.

As a way of fighting COVID-19, though, it stinks. Ultimately, trivializing the problem or adopting an everyone-decide-for-yourselves philosophy doesn’t save local stores or restaurants if infection rates rise to the point of shutdown, or at least to where residents don’t feel safe going out of their houses. The evidence continues to build: Masks help. Large indoor gatherings are the most dangerous. The science isn’t going to change to conform to the fantasies of some Orange County deniers or the politicians who cater to them.


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