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‘We know our county best’: Orange County supervisors seek local control over COVID-19 response as cases soar

A sunset at Huntington Beach Pier on Monday, Nov. 30.
Randall and Jennifer Harris watch the sunset at the Huntington Beach Pier on Nov. 30.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Orange County leaders are urging the state to allow for more local control in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, after millions of Southern California residents were placed Monday under stay-at-home restrictions that further limited business operations across 11 counties.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed a Healthy Communities resolution suggesting state officials have issued orders during the coronavirus pandemic that have severely impacted local schools, businesses and constituents while providing little data to support or justify the mandates.

“They’re playing us for fools, saying you guys have to follow these rules. And they’re making the rules up as they go along,” Supervisor Don Wagner, who proposed the resolution alongside Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, said of Sacramento lawmakers.

“We know our county best. We can have a focused response to the disease. The only hope of doing it right is allowing local control,” he continued.

The new Southern California stay-at-home order will last a minimum of three weeks. Monday marked the first day that the latest restrictions have been in place.

A health order issued Saturday called on residents in Orange County — along with 10 other jurisdictions from San Diego County to Mono County, identified as part of a Southern California region — to halt all nonessential businesses starting Monday for a three-week period.

The mandate was triggered when the aggregate ICU bed availability for the newly configured region dropped below 15%. Under the order, most retail businesses operations have been reduced to 20% capacity, while restaurants may no longer offer indoor or outdoor dining.

Orange County leaders have bristled at having other counties’ coronavirus indicators factored into local outcomes, while business leaders and restaurateurs said they plan to flout restrictions. Sheriff Don Barnes affirmed Saturday his deputies would not enforce compliance with the mandates.

Tuesday’s resolution does not have the force of law — it merely affirms elected officials oppose the orders and will do what they can to lobby for the power to issue their own orders during the pandemic.

“This represents thousands of people throughout the community saying, ‘Help us. This isn’t working — try something else,’” Wagner said of the document. “We are asking, Governor, hear us. Hear the people. Governor, let us protect our citizens.”

In a rally in Costa Mesa, small business owners and restaurateurs said they would operate despite COVID-19 restrictions, calling them arbitrary and unfair, even as California’s ICU bed capacity shrinks.

The resolution asks for counties to determine a local COVID-19 response and individual courses of action for geographically distinct areas. It also calls for schools to reopen and offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible without further delay.”

“We need to reopen our economy — we can’t keep opening and closing over and over and over again,” Bartlett said. “It’s important to send a message to Sacramento and to support our small businesses, who are really struggling right now, but also to support our residents, who are suffering through this crisis.”

County residents, speaking in public comments Tuesday, largely favored the document and its principles.

“I’m asking you to do whatever you need to do to walk in the truth and do what’s best for your citizens, and that is not listening to the governor,” said speaker Lori, who did not provide her surname. “The cure that he is proposing, and we are following, is so much worse than the actual virus. Allow people to live and live freely.”

San Juan Capistrano resident David Blain said he favored a small-government approach to responding to the coronavirus.

“You, county board supervisors, are in a better position to make decisions for Orange County residents and for our community than Gov. Newsom up in Sacramento,” he said. “He shouldn’t be able to rule just by fiat.”

Supervisor Vice Chair Andrew Do said he supported the resolution but urged those in the community to see it not as a political act of retaliation against Newsom or state officials but as an attempt to secure the autonomy to make decisions during a time of crisis.

With the county’s ICU capacity at a critical low of 13%, he continued, the public health threat of COVID-19 is higher than ever before.

“Let’s focus on the ask for the resolution, which I support, and not turn it into a political statement against Sacramento,” Do said. “Because that will dilute the laser focus we need to have as a community to fight this pandemic.”

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