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California Gov. Gavin Newsom during a live press conference June 26 in Los Angeles implored Imperial County public health officials to reinstate a stay-at-home order amid rising cases of COVID-19 in the county. STAFF PHOTO

UPDATE: County Proposes Its Version of ‘Toggling Back’, Awaits Newsom’s Response

UPDATED 9 p.m. June 29: Although Gov. Gavin Newsom implored Imperial County officials to “toggle back” and reinstate its stay-at-home orders during a live press conference June 26, county public health officials assured that the orders had never been lifted and that they remained in place since late March.

Still, after meeting with state officials over the weekend and again on June 29, the county has proposed what could only be construed as its version of “toggling back.”

The county is now awaiting a response from the state, according to a press release from the county executive office that followed a 3 p.m. closed-session emergency meeting of the county Board of Supervisors to further discuss the issue.

The press release stated county officials met with state representatives the evening of June 29, but it wasn’t immediately clear if that was after the emergency meeting.

In the release the county has proposed the following:

  1. Reiterate stay-at-home order and face covering requirements through increased public messaging.
  2. Strongly encourage businesses to enforce face-covering requirements.
  3. Close all non-essential businesses to in-store traffic, allowing curbside pickup only.
  4. Increase educational activity with restaurants further clarifying curbside pick-up.
  5. Strongly encourage families to limit the number of people visiting a store to one person per family for each visit.
  6. Prohibit non-essential gatherings of any size.
  7. Continue encouraging faith-based organizations to conduct virtual religious services; indoor services prohibited, outdoor services will be limited to 100 participants, as long as can implement social distancing measures.
  8. Encourage telecommuting services, as much as possible, for all businesses.
  9. Close all county parks and recreational areas to public access.
  10. Strongly encourage cities to close their parks as well.
  11. Continue to collaborate and increase targeted engagement with local cities and law enforcement agencies regarding local health orders.
  12. Engage additional community-based organizations and faith-based groups in a reinvented outreach plan.
  13. Continue binational partnership with Mexicali to mitigate impacts of COVID-19 in both communities.

The county has “begun working independently on implementing increased public engagement and collaboration. If the state and county come to a consensus on the additional restrictions and engagement, a revised Public Health Order will be issued by Dr. Stephen Munday, Imperial County Public Health Officer, immediately,” according to the press release, which issued shortly after 8 p.m. June 29. 

“As the county Board of Supervisors, we are committed to adopting additional measures to diminish the impacts of COVID-19,” stated county Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Luis A. Plancarte in the press release. “We ask for all governing bodies in our county to increase engagement within their communities to help us improve the health and safety of its residents.”

Similar to the “pause” seen in San Francisco, where government and public health officials all but locked down that city’s residents for several days, “we hope to see in Imperial County that take shape,” Newsom said during a midday press conference from Los Angeles on June 26.

On June 28, Newsom, in a Los Angeles Times article, also named Imperial County among a list of 15 California counties that should either close or consider closing its bars.

Again, Imperial County had never had any bars open as it had never met the state’s health metrics on COVID rates to get to that point.

As for the June 26 press conference, it wasn’t immediately clear what he meant by that statement, but he did say he would act if the county did not “toggle back.” Many considered that a demand for Imperial County return to “Stage 1” on the Roadmap to Recovery, although those words have not been explicitly said.

Newsom also asked that the county “pull back and re-institute a stay-at-home order.”

As the governor still spoke June 26, Imperial County Public Health Department Public Information Officer Fernanda Lynch told this newspaper that the stay-in-place order had never been lifted, and allowed for “essential” travel only, such as going to and from work, seeking out basic living necessities and attending to things such as doctors’ appointments.

Other than that, the stay-at-home orders have remained in place since late March.

Imperial County Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Luis Plancarte doubled-down on that idea during a 6 p.m. press conference addressing Newsom’s statements.

“We are already following the directives put forth,” he said, adding that Imperial County’s mandatory stay-at-home orders and edicts to wear face coverings are in place and that only those businesses allowed to be open through prior consultation with the state have done so.

Plancarte could not say what drove Newsom to mention Imperial County during his weekly press conference, reiterating the list of protections in place by the county Public Health Department just as he does most county board meetings and whenever he has been interviewed.

District 2 County Supervisor Luis Plancarte

He described the county’s actions to protect its residents as “proactive” and “aggressive.”

The governor’s statements don’t change anything, Plancarte said, “just reiterates what we already have.”

Plancarte did say that county government and public health officials would continue to meet over the weekend and speak with the state to see what more can be done to help the situation.

Plancarte on June 26 was asked whether Gov. Newsom was ordering Imperial County to return to Stage 1 on the Roadmap to Recovery, meaning, will the county be ordered to close down some businesses the state allowed the county to re-open some weeks ago as the county moved to Stage 2 (low-risk).

There’s “no decision to make changes yet,” Plancarte said, adding all parties would discuss the issue over the weekend. “We’ll see what the best path going forward is.”

In looking over what the county has proposed to the state June 29, some of the items among the list of 13 could be considered a step backward to Stage 1.

The proposed closure of all non-essential businesses to in-store traffic, allowing curbside pickup only, appears to be a step back.

As would be prohibiting in-door church services and closing public parks.

Plancarte on June 26 implied that the county was doing everything it was being asked to do, and that a healthy lack of regard for the standing health orders by the public was to blame for the continuing spread of the virus.

Quoting 19th-century American naval commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, Plancarte said, “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us (sic).” To reinforce that idea, Plancarte, later in the press conference, described driving home from work seeing countless people standing in front of stores not wearing masks and not practicing social distancing.

He said it is the public’s “inability” and “unwillingness” to stay in place that is spreading the virus among the community.

Plancarte also acknowledged Mexico’s contribution to the transmission of the virus, but he said county officials have no control over who can come into Imperial County from Mexicali.

The chairman also made certain to thank all of the resources the state has provided Imperial County with so far, including testing materials, personnel and equipment, among other things.

“We are greatly appreciative of the tools and resources the state and federal agencies have provided for our community; but we need more. We all want what is best for our community; to minimize the number of people getting sick, to rebuild our economy, to get our kids back to school and to get our loved ones back to work,” Plancarte stated in a news release that came a few hours after the county’s press conference.

The governor’s office made Imperial County officials aware that Newsom was going to make his announcement minutes before doing so, Lynch said, and the county Board of Supervisors were informed.

She said there have been a couple modifications to the health order instituted by Public Health Officer, Dr. Stephen Munday, and approved by the county board over that time, including moving from Stage 1 to the early part of Stage 2 on the Roadmap to Recovery, but she reiterated the stay-at-home component has remained all along.

On June 23, Munday modified the order, but that was in favor of the more detailed and stringent face-covering requirements coming out of the governor’s office on June 22.

Meanwhile, Newsom dismissed the political “punditry” saying that the “triple-digit increases” in temperatures seen in Imperial County and around the state “will somehow annihilate (COVID-19 transmissions).”

“This disease doesn’t take a summer vacation,” Newsom said.

He said he just recently sent 76 more ventilators to hospitals in Imperial County, but did not specify when.

Newsom made his weekly update on COVID-19 as cases continue to stack up in Imperial County, where there were 5,838 positive cases, 932 of which are active cases, as of June 26. Some 73 Imperial County residents have died from the disease.

The governor called the spread of the novel coronavirus in Imperial County and its resurgence throughout the state a “tragedy,” and warned that it wasn’t just 80- and 90-year-olds dying from COVID or those ages 65 and over contracting the disease; rather, he said the spread of the virus was affecting younger people.

He asked that people are all ages start to pay more attention, stay at home if they can, wear their face coverings and “watch the nightly news” to stay informed.

“What more evidence do we need?” Newsom asked.

He said many people out and about might be asymptomatic or “pre-symptomatic,” and could be a “vector” (carrier) in transmitting the disease to others who are at risk for more grave reactions to the illness.

“Practice common sense and common decency,” Newsom said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how calling out Imperial County by name would affect the county board’s request for “local control” in dealing with the variance criteria set by the state to move forward on the Roadmap to Recovery.

Clearly, Newsom’s comments didn’t reflect favorably on the request to have certain metrics lifted and “local control” ceded. The county sent a letter making the request more than two weeks ago and spoke with state officials last week.

“Obviously, it’s not going to go anywhere based on his comments today. He’s probably not even going to respond to that letter,” District 5 Imperial County Supervisor Raymond Castillo said.

Plancarte did say at the 6 p.m. press conference that he believes comments made by Newsom last week regarding variance criteria already made it known that Imperial County would be turned down on its request to have the criteria lifted.

Chief among the metrics Imperial County has not been able to reach is epidemiological stability, which the state has said for several weeks that in order to move from one stage of opening to another must show a seven-day average of new COVID infections at 8 percent or fewer of those tested.

Imperial County has never been able to meet that standard despite a massive increase in testing capacity over the last several weeks that should have driven that percentage down, and it has to a certain degree.

Just two weeks ago, the average was well into the lower 20 percent range. This week it has hovered between 11 percent and 17 percent. As of June 26, it was 13.82 percent.

Newsom said the percentage today was 23 percent, and Plancarte was asked what was correct, Newsom’s data or the county’s.

Plancarte said both. The 13.82 percent on the county’s dashboard was for the seven-day average, and that Newsom referred to a 14-day average during his press conference.

The county Board of Supervisors went into closed session under the guise of “threat to public services or facilities” at 4:30 p.m. to discuss Newsom’s comments. The meeting ended just before 6 with “no reportable action taken.”

Newsom said Imperial County is among 15 California counties the state is closely monitoring due to the spread of the disease.

At one point during his press conference, Newsom was asked how the seemingly sudden surge of COVID in neighboring Arizona has affected Imperial County.

He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a team investigating that very topic, and it has been for “over a week.”

Newsom said he expected a detailed report to his office from the CDC on June 25, but it had not come yet. He said he was hoping to get it later in the day June 26.

With Independence Day looming, Newsom said many California residents are “fatigued” from staying at home and might want to celebrate the nation’s birth at barbecues with “Uncle John.” Yet be practically begged people not to do it, “with the unpredictable growth in the number of cases.”

Meanwhile, several local groups issued statements regarding Newsom’s comments, including the Imperial Valley Business Recovery Task Force.

“Today’s recommended action by the Governor is, in many cases, a devastating turn of events for our businesses who have worked hard over the last several months to implement proper safety precautions for a safe working environment. We understand the struggle our
businesses continue to face, and we stand ready to assist the local businesses while they navigate this challenging time,” stated Katie Luna, executive director of the Brawley Chamber of Commerce and spokesperson for the I.V. Business Recovery Task Force, in its press release.

“We must all work together — business and residents — and we urge
everyone to wear your face covering, adhere to social distancing, and
to do your part in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our
community,” Luna stated.

On the opposite end of the spectrum has stood the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition, which along with Comite Civico Del Valle and other healthcare and social justice groups, recently began to vocally oppose the county’s call for local control, organizing online petitions and sending their own letter to Newsom’s office.

The coalition issued its support of Newsom’s statements June 26.

“In his press conference today, Governor Newsom’s (sic) called on county leadership to take the step in calling for a return to Stage 1, stay-at-home status, but points that ‘​… if they are not able to come to some consensus, I am committed to intervening as is my role and responsibility as Governor of the State of California.’ We hope that the county will follow Governor Newsom’s recommendation and make efforts to expand public education and community compliance with the updated order,” the coalition stated in its press release.

“We are optimistic that with Governor’s support and with increased state and federal resources, county public health officials working with community health coalitions can strengthen and expand the response to COVID-19 in our community. There are persistent issues with the accessibility of testing, as the county only has two free locations in a time of limited public transit options. Issues with the accessibility and availability of economic relief, PPE (personal protective equipment), contact tracers, and information have limited containment efforts. Finally, mixed signals and insufficient enforcement at the county level has not helped. We are optimistic that Governor Newsom’s clear directive will allow for focus and collaboration to get Imperial County’s outbreak under control,” the release continued.

The Imperial County Medical Society also issued a statement shortly after the noontime press conference, through its president, Dr. Theodore Affue.

“Imperial County leaders should heed Gov. Newsom’s warning given the COVID-19 caseload in our county, and the spike in cases and deaths in recent weeks. Though our county is the 30th-most populous in the state, we have the sixth-highest number of COVID-19 cases, with 195 new cases (June 25) alone. We know that another temporary stay-at-home order will be inconvenient for many, but it is the best course of action to protect public health. This is a sobering reminder that the COVID-19 crisis is not over. We must continue to be vigilant in our effort to suppress this deadly virus, and our leaders must make decisions to protect our community that are based on science and data,” Affue stated in an email to this newspaper.

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