The city of El Centro released a detailed phased timeline, including dates, of how and when businesses in the city will re-open during its livestreamed City Council meeting May 1.
The announcement comes in direct defiance of county government and public health officials, who have maintained there is no timeline to open local businesses due to an ongoing health order from Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday and ongoing orders from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
As recently as April 28, during its last regular Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting, the county reiterated no timelines were immediately available for re-opening local “nonessential” businesses forced closed by the state and Munday.
Meanwhile, the El Centro City Council held a special closed session meeting April 29 in which the council voted 4-0 to issue the phased-in plan to re-open local businesses, according to an undisclosed member of the council who provided this newspaper with an early final draft of the plan.
Council member Edgard Garcia was absent from the April 29 meeting.
The plan was unveiled around 11:30 a.m. May 1 during the city’s weekly COVID-19 update live on Facebook in El Centro council chambers.
Contained within the five-page re-opening document, El Centro is allowing the reopening of all businesses to online orders or curbside pick-up as part of phase I, which starts May 6.
As part of that phase, there are to be “physical distancing and protective measures in place,” which were not defined in the document.
Phase II, which is dated May 11, expands to churches, the city’s Aquatic Center, all city “retail and commercial businesses,” indoor and outside dining at city restaurants, nail and hair salons and barbershops, and massage parlors and tattoo shops, according to the document.
As part of phase II, again, there are to be “physical distancing and protective measures in place.”
As part of the third phase, which does not have an implementation date, the city would allow the re-opening of bars and entertainment, gyms and fitness centers, the return of public events, opening of the bowling alley, opening of softball and baseball fields, and opening of the city Public Library.
A final fourth phase, according to the document, would be the restarting of city recreational programs. Phase IV also does not come with an implementation date.
The undisclosed El Centro City Council member confirmed that this plan does include the stores and businesses at the Imperial Valley Mall.
“We realize that physical distancing and other protective actions are necessary for the ongoing protection as well as the health and well-being of the community. The city (Emergency Operations Center) staff will be assisting businesses with compliance and best practices on an ongoing basis. Our approach is intended to be educational, however, we will engage in enforcement actions as needed,” according to a final statement by the city in the document.
At issue is, the plan contradicts not only the county’s health orders and the state’s mandates, but U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal guidelines for “re-opening America.” The guidelines say local governments must show 14 days where the number of COVID-19-positive cases have not increased or the growth has been stagnant.
By all available county Public Health Department data, that has not been the case and likely will not be any time in the immediate future as access to confirmatory COVID testing in Imperial County increases. According to Gov. Newsom’s interpretation of the CDC recommendations, that would put local governments opening businesses further into the summer.
El Centro Fire Chief Ken Herbert explained why he thinks El Centro’s plan is in accordance with federal guidelines:
“If you take the suspected COVID positives and positives in the (intensive-care unit) at (El Centro Regional Medical Center) and go backwards 14 days, the number is 12. Today that number is 13. This demonstrates the bell curve is non-existent,” Herbert said following the El Centro council meeting May 1.
Although an El Centro council member said the county called together an emergency meeting of all city managers in the Valley to discuss the plan earlier in the afternoon May 1, county Public Information Officer Linsey Dale said a 1:30 p.m. teleconference was part of ongoing “Road to Recovery” internal discussions between the county, cities and chambers of commerce officials.
What exactly was discussed at the county-wide teleconference wasn’t immediately available. PIO Dale described the meeting as internal discussions where media were not invited.
However, Calexico City Manager David Dale spoke with this newspaper following the meeting May 1, which he said ended with no immediate resolution.
“Calexico has the highest number of COVID-infected people in the county … We have to be diligent with what we do in the community” as far as re-opening our businesses, Dale said following the telephone conference with the county and his Valley-wide counterparts.
Dale said he understands the concerns of the business community and the effect the pandemic has had on the economy; it’s happening in Calexico like every county city.
“But our priority is the health and well-being of Calexico,” David Dale said. “We will follow suite with the city of El Centro if it’s determined to be the best course.”
David Dale stressed, “We understand El Centro’s position. We share those concerns … (But) we certainly don’t want to jump the gun and see a spike in numbers of cases because we opened too fast.”
Calexico’s city manager said he will continue discussing the issue of re-opening with the Calexico City Council in closed session at the council’s regularly scheduled meeting May 6.
One thing this newspaper pointed out to the undisclosed member of the El Centro City Council earlier May 1 was whether the city has authority to do some of the things its re-opening plan is calling for, such as restoring dining in at local eateries.
PIO Linsey Dale confirmed that the county public health department is the authority that issues permits to restaurants, whether in the county or incorporated cities. That issue was not immediately addressed by the city of El Centro.
Meanwhile, the county issued a response to the city’s re-opening plan prior to its public release earlier May 1:
“The County of Imperial greatly sympathizes and understands the hardship many small and independent businesses and their employees in Imperial County have endured over the past several weeks as a result of the restrictions due to COVID-19. However, it is important to remember that both the State of California and the County of Imperial’s health orders remain in effect.
“On Tuesday (April 28), Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined a framework for reopening the economy of the State in phases that is guided by science and public health, not by political pressure. Additionally, as announced earlier this week, the County of Imperial is also currently working on a plan to reopen our local economy in a manner that continues to protect the health and well-being of our community, while balancing our community’s needs, in collaboration and coordination with the cities, chambers of commerce and other business and non-profit stakeholders.
“It is unfortunate that one of our cities has unilaterally, without a countywide coordinated effort, decided to reopen or loosen restrictions for many businesses not taking into consideration the guidance and expertise of state and local public health officials, since all surrounding communities will suffer the long-term effects of reopening our economy and risking additional spread too soon.
“As displayed in the County’s COVID-19 Dashboard, Imperial County has shown a consistent increase in positive cases and, most recently, deaths. With the State and County increasing testing capacity in our community by opening a new testing site next week, it is likely that those numbers will increase. Now, with opening up more businesses and facilities prior to ensuring that we have adequate diagnostic testing capacity, sufficient health care system capacity, and strengthened public health surveillance in place to respond to potential surges that could result from premature action and increased exposure.
“Hence, as previously mentioned, the County is working on a plan to reopen our local economy in a coordinated effort that continues to protect the health and well-being of its residents. Additionally, the County is also working with the State to increase the testing capacity in our community with a new testing site. The County of Imperial is doing its best to fulfill the parameters the governor laid out, so we can move forward as fast and safely as possible.
“The public is encouraged to visit the Imperial County Public Health Department website at www.icphd.org and follow the Imperial County Facebook and Twitter pages @ImperialCntyCA for up-to-date information.”
The city of El Centro’s special meeting April 29, and subsequent vote to approve its re-opening plan, was done in accordance with the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meetings law. The decision was made under the aegis of “public safety,” according to information provided by the city attorney, through a council member.
“Upon advice of its legal counsel, the City Council will recess to closed session pursuant to Government Code Section 54957(a) regarding matters posing a threat to the security of public buildings and essential public services and the public’s right of access to those,” according to the Government Code.
Meanwhile, El Centro’s Herbert was asked about the county’s statement that El Centro was acting unilaterally.
“The Imperial County manages resources on a county level and are responsible for logistical needs. We (the city of El Centro) have been operating as a liaison to county since the epidemic started,” he told a reporter.
Addressing additional frustrations about getting accurate data from representatives of the county, Herbert further commented:
“I hope communication flow with the Imperial County continues. We are all professionals, and all have the same goal. We are going to have disagreements, but that does not mean we are going to stop working together.”
Check back here, the story is developing.
Reporter Jayson Barniske contributed reporting to this story.