SLO County’s Coronavirus Reopening Rollout is a Mess

San Luis Obispo County
San Luis Obispo County

San Luis Obispo County wants to reopen the economy quickly. It’s clear our county government, residents and small business owners want to reopen to the “new normal” as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t do so prematurely. We should also hold those accountable for taking that premature route.

On April 20, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham penned a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom that was co-signed by several local leaders with bipartisan consensus. The letter urged the governor to allow our county to implement a phased reopening strategy over the course of three weeks based on unspecified “science and expert” guidance. Cunningham insisted the discussion to reopen the county was based on a declining infection rate and fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations. At the time the letter the sent to Newsom, we had 130 positive cases, 111 fully recovered, 3 in the hospital and one death. Nearly a month later, as of May 13, we have 232 positive cases, 183 fully recovered, 4 hospitalized with 2 in the ICU. While our hospitalization rates have remained relatively low, we’ve nearly doubled our confirmed cases.

So when Cunningham said our county was “successful in [their] efforts to manage the virus’s spread,” it didn’t completely turn out that way.

In his letter, Cunningham mentioned the County would fully develop and “be ready to implement” SLO County Roadmap for Reopening, which he said would be fully compliant with state and federal guidelines. According to Gov. Newsom’s office, neither Cunningham nor the County provided any additional insight into any specifics about the plan in addition to the letter. Basically, Cunningham wrote, “Trust us. We have something you’ll like.” Based on that trust and the promise to unveil a plan, Cunningham insisted on the state giving them the pathway to reopen. This was essentially putting the cart before the horse.

Sure enough, SLO County’s roadmap did appear. They called it the START Guide, which was released days before Gov. Newsom announced more details about the state’s protocols for reopening. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with SLO County ambitiously drawing up a plan, but they did so without consulting Gov. Newsom’s office. Evidence of this appeared in the form of a Tribune article, which cited key differences between the County’s circumstances and the state’s criteria. According to the state, a county could look into reopening if they have no new cases per 10,000 people in the last two weeks, have at least 15 people doing contact tracing per 10,000 residents, and have a minimum daily testing capacity of 1.5 per 1,000 residents. Our County failed to meet the core criteria. Following Gov. Newsom’s office soundly rejecting the County’s plan, the County immediately walked their plan back. Once again, they put the cart before the horse.

Following Gov. Newsom turning down SLO County’s reopening framework, SLO County Public Health Director Dr. Penny Borenstein submitted a Variance Attestation form to the state, addressing the county’s inadequacies by assuring the state that they’ll eventually meet the criteria. In other words, “Trust us. We’ll get there.” But it looks as though we’re setting ourselves up for history repeating.

What was conspicuously absent from Cunningham’s letter and the County was the consideration of a regional approach to reopening our county, which is something Gov. Newsom has recommended. Here’s why it’s important for us to consider a regional approach and assess the varying circumstances with neighboring counties.

We are a county that relies heavily on tourism. We are the place where people in Santa Barbara, Monterey, Kings, Kern and Fresno County come for vacation. Maybe some residents in these neighboring counties have relatives who live here. Maybe they have a second home or vacation rental here. But it’s undeniable that tourism plays a significant role in our economy as a core part of our tax base. Many of our local governments either operate on shoestring budgets and/or considerable shortfalls and the only pillar to hold up their shaky fiscal foundation is tourism. Right now, photo after photo, video after video shows tourists continuing to visit our county — many of whom don’t wear masks or are shown to be practicing social distancing. They are, in effect, the x factor that neither Assemblyman Cunningham nor SLO County have factored into their plans and pleas to reopen our county.

Dr. Borenstein addressed this in a peculiar way in the Variance Attestation. and I think it’s worth breaking down. She wrote that neighboring counties have experienced upticks in their number of cases primarily due to outbreaks at the federal penitentiary in Lompoc (located in Santa Barbara County) and long-term care facilities in other jurisdictions. This sounded like an oversimplification of the issues in our neighboring counties, so I looked into it.

As of May 13, Santa Barbara County has 1,376 confirmed cases, 489 recoveries and 11 deaths. The majority of those cases are indeed from Lompoc federal prison at 894. 69 community cases remain active. Their metrics do not meet state criteria. While the rate of infection has definitely slowed, even with Lompoc, the amount of active positive cases in the community remain comparable to ours. Monterey County has 308 confirmed cases, 153 recovered and 6 deaths. Their infection rate has increased sharply compared to neighboring Santa Cruz and San Benito. They expanded their shelter-in-place order to May 31 and are preparing for a possible positive case surge with farmworkers. In Kings County, there are 348 confirmed cases, 103 recovered and only one death. ABC30 reported that two employees at Warmerdam Packing LP facility in Kings County have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting concerns about a possible outbreak not dissimilar to outbreaks we’ve seen nationally at packing facilities. Kern County has 1,343 confirmed cases, 836 recovered and 17 deaths. The hardest hit demographic in that county are Hispanics at a whopping 66%. State models show the projected peak of cases in Kern County will not come until around October. Fresno County has 1,014 confirmed cases, 349 recovered and 13 deaths. While those 13 deaths involved individuals aged 74–89, they experienced their largest reported jump in cases on Monday with no indication that the infection rate was slowing down.

Compared to everywhere else, our county is doing relatively well. But because we’re doing relatively well, that may serve as incentive for tourists to visit and defy their local shelter-in-place orders. Dr. Borenstein stated that was unlikely because our county is like an “island” that doesn’t “fit easily into any well-recognized region.” Basically, she’s saying there’s little connectivity to neighboring counties and their larger population centers except that we offer beach tourism via the Oceano Dunes. Again, this seems like a vast oversimplification of our thriving tourism industry and the various destinations our local communities are widely known for. And “island” is probably not a good analogy to draw since some of the most vulnerable populations susceptible to mass infection are small island developing states, according to the United Nations. Thought the comparison was tonedeaf.

Other than vague assurances and platitudes, we haven’t seen any serious indication of our county reaching out to other counties to form any sort of task force or coordinated regional response to COVID-19. By and large, our county’s response has been “every county for themselves” and they’ve refused to — at least publicly — address the severity of the outbreaks in our neighboring counties. Clearly, these outbreaks can’t be limited to merely Lompoc federal prison and long-term care centers. The empirical data we’re seeing from neighboring counties indicate that they haven’t even begun to reach a clear apex of cases. There’s no clear indicator of specific hotspots, so Dr. Borenstein’s overly broad-brushed assessment of the hardest hits areas around us is borderline deceptive.

So when I learned the SLO County Board of Supervisors voted 5–0 vote to approved the submittal of Dr. Borenstein’s Variance Attestation, I was a little surprised and disappointed. In theory, having that unanimous backing by the County Supervisors to back the push to reopen with state approval is a good step forward. But it also shows the board’s unwillingness to read the finer details and notice what’s missing. In that context, the vote of confidence is somewhat unnerving.

Other issues coming to the forefront are the wave of “anti-lockdown” protests, which are being organized and championed by the SLO County Republican Party. The local GOP is also calling for legal challenges and civil disobedience in their recent resolution aimed at reopening the county faster. They don’t take into account that certain restrictions are being loosened and the County is doing what they can to make reopening more than a remote possibility. However, their ignorance and impulsiveness can and will endanger more lives since the recent protests, one of them being in Paso Robles — the largest COVID-19 hotspot in SLO County — clearly included protesters that were not observing social distancing. While everyone has the constitutional right to peacefully assemble, exercising that right comes with viral consequences. My concern is that these protesters will spur our county government to act more impulsively and continue to cut corners to reopen the economy.

Obviously, no local, state or federal authority has the emergency powers to usurp constitutional rights nor should they, but I have not seen our county temporarily discouraging protests that don’t responsibly practice safety guidelines, especially in Paso Robles where we’ve seen a spike in cases.

I haven’t seen any evidence that our local leaders are acting on bad faith. From the looks of it, everyone involved wants to get back to business, but we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As much as we want it to happen, COVID-19 will not be going away any time soon, as our neighboring counties clearly show.

The resources we need to effectively manage or cap the infection rate are not there. We do not have a widespread testing apparatus available, though our county has certainly made strides in that area. We currently do not have enough trained tracers to effectively isolate potential infections. While we’re closer than most to reaching epidemiological stability, we’ve been noticeably reluctant to assess the instability around us and how we would be impacted from residents living in those areas. If and when they visit our county, many of us will be unable to socially distance properly outside the safe confines of our homes. Even if we are to reopen our county more seamlessly going forward, there are a number of valid concerns about our overall preparedness that will have to be addressed before consumer confidence bounces back to pre-coronavirus levels.

The county may understandably disagree with the state’s strict criteria, but the criteria are common sense benchmarks that effectively indicate our preparedness to move forward. We want to have periods of no new cases. We want to have enough testing so that people with mild symptoms or who are asymptomatic can get tested. There is nothing wrong or oppressive with such criteria unless, of course, our leadership is insecure in their ability to meet them.

My concern is that our community and local leadership’s blanket encouragement of the county’s response to COVID-19 will undermine the need to properly evaluate their missteps. I feel we’ve squandered the time we could’ve spent meeting with Gov. Newsom’s representatives to have a synchronized reopening strategy. Should SLO County continue to “ready, fire, aim” like we’ve been doing with our passive-aggressive letters, half-cocked plans and tepid assurances, more lives will be at risk and the sacrifices we’ve made to socially distance will be at risk of being made in vain.

Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews. Click here to subscribe to his Patreon, check out exclusive news features and more.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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