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Imperial County Public Health Department Director Jeanette Angulo (left) speaks during a late afternoon press conference Aug. 19 detailing the three processes the county is taking to further re-open businesses amid improving coronavirus conditions in the county. VIDEO SCREEN CAPTURE

Imperial County: Three-Process Path to Further Re-Opening Underway

(UPDATED 10:15 a.m.: Additional information has been included from Aug. 18 county Board of Supervisors meeting.)

Imperial County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr. speaks during a late afternoon press conference Aug. 19 detailing the three processes the county is taking to further re-open businesses amid improving coronavirus conditions in the county. VIDEO SCREEN CAPTURE

After finally reaching all of the metrics required to move further along the state’s Roadmap to Recovery, which mostly involves the re-opening of certain sectors of businesses, the Imperial County Public Health Department announced Aug. 19 its three-step process to resume some level of normalcy.

Five months after Imperial County closed hundreds of businesses and went into near complete lockdown mode due to the spread of coronavirus in the community, including a midpoint surge of the illness in mid-June and early July that saw the region takes several steps backward, a press conference was staged in which Public Health Director Jeanette Angulo announced the county’s efforts to move forward along three parallel, concurrent paths.

Angulo went on to detail the three processes, but summed up the efforts near the end of the press conference by saying the county had met all of the metrics required by the state to be granted a “variance,” which shows a county has COVID-19 transmissions under control in its community, to move further into the roadmap and it was all now or soon will be pending approval from state Public Health officials.

“If granted a variance, we must follow the state’s guidelines,” she said.

“The pandemic is not over,” Angulo added, and it will be important that locals build on the progress made by continuing to adhere to health orders to practice social distancing, wearing face coverings, sanitizing and doing all of those things that got the county to this juncture.

County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr. thanked county residents for their hard work to bend the curve and make this happen but warned against complacency.

“We must continue to stay safe. We cannot afford to backslide like we have seen other communities in California do,” Rouhotas said. “I’m truly proud of the progress we have made as a county. (But) if we re-open, and the numbers go up again, we will be forced to closed down again.”

In laying out the three processes the county was taking, Angulo visited each in detail.

The first and most immediate change, which county officials expect to hear back on any time, is a “pending” request by county Public Health Officer, Dr. Stephen Munday, to move from a modified Stage 1 closure of all “nonessential” businesses to foot traffic (there is curbside pickup in place) to Stage 2 “low risk,” which would re-open some of the nonessential businesses to foot traffic and allow for some additional outdoor activities and further openings.

This first request was made Aug. 18, before the county met all of the state’s metrics, and would be a return to the level the county was at prior to the state’s demands that Imperial County “toggle back” amid a surge of COVID-19 infections in July.

The second path, a more critical move forward, was Angulo’s announcement that Munday had spoken to state Public Health officials and notified them of the county’s intent to file its “variance criteria attestation” form, which attests that the county has met all of the metrics the state requires of a county before it can move to a “higher risk” rung, Stage 2B on the roadmap, if you will, which would open up even more businesses under controlled conditions.

Angulo said the final piece of the puzzle was Imperial County hitting 7.64 percent on the seven-day percentage average for COVID-positivity testing rate on Aug. 19, which had to be 8 percent or lower.

Angulo said Munday will submit the variance report and it will have to be verified by the state and posted the state Public Health Department website.

The third path the county is traveling is trying to get off the state’s data-monitoring list on the California Department of Public Health webpage. Imperial County is currently on the list with 39 other counties (several of which are in the process of being removed after meeting the state’s thresholds). As of early Aug. 20, the list shows Imperial County still not having met the county’s metrics for seven-day percentage on positivity rates.

It was unclear at this point how long it will take to get approval and begin the process on re-opening certain businesses and to what degree. Angulo and Munday during the county Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 18 said each business sector had specific guidelines for opening that had to be followed, which are posted to the state’s website. The indication was those times and processes can vary.

Some of what was announced during the press conference late in the afternoon Aug. 19 was foretold during the county board meeting on the morning of Aug. 18.

What Happened at the County Board Meeting

There was a lot of discussion about re-opening during the board meeting, much of which kicked off during public comment, when those representing local businesses pleaded their cases to the county to move forward in petitioning the state to move forward on the roadmap before all the metrics had been met.

Much of the discussion was happening a day in advance of the county Public Health Department updating its surveillance dashboard Aug. 19 with some of the most favorable data the region has seen since the lockdowns began five months ago; certainly since the mid-June/early July surge in cases.

As of 10:20 a.m. Aug. 19, the dashboard showed 265 deaths, 10,304 positive cases (only six new cases from the day before and 146 cases since a week before), 886 of which were considered active and 9,153 considered recovered. More important, epidemiological stability had posted at 7.64 percent, down from 9 percent the day before.

As of 11:05 a.m. Aug. 20, the dashboard showed 266 deaths, 10,325 positive cases, 878 of which were considered active and 9,181 considered recovered. Epidemiological stability bumped up past 8 percent, to 8.33 percent.

It wasn’t immediately available Aug. 20 from county public health officials how that would affect the petition for a variance.

Imperial Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Susan Paradis and Westmorland Chamber of Commerce President Bari Smith appeared one after another to ask the county board to reach out to the state early in an effort to re-open businesses.

“It was made clear to me that unless our county makes a statement saying we are ready for the next phase, we can hold press conferences, we can protest, we can write letters, but it has to come from our elected officials that we are ready,” Paradis said. “And I would suggest that we are … Our numbers are the lowest they’ve been.”

Paradis encouraged the county to send in its letter even before meeting the variance criteria. She insisted that the local, small businesses she represents were in better and safer positions to re-open than the big-box retailers that have continually operated as essential businesses.

She called it “disheartening” to watch without enforcing certain safeguards beyond simply wearing a mask.

Smith next told of the 36 businesses she represents that are mostly agriculture-related, but then keyed in on the struggles being face by high-end Westmorland restaurant, the Town Pump, which she said was a 40-plus-year-old, four-generation business that has had to lay off 15 employees.

“Businesses like that are really, really suffering,” she added.

Sean Wilcock, vice president of business development with the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp., advocated for the early submittal of the variance attestation and for the re-opening of local businesses, partly due to the seeking of so many services outside of Imperial County by local residents and the fear that locals could being back disease.

“One thing concerning me is the volumes of people traveling to San Diego, to Yuma, to Mexicali, to Riverside County, and bypassing services that can be offered right here, and they are getting those services in those counties, and they’re potentially bringing back infection,” Wilcock said.

Also, he said IVEDC, through its work with the Imperial Valley Business Recovery Task Force, was already prepping local businesses how to open safely during the pandemic. He added that IVEDC has partnered with county Public Health, the Imperial Valley Small Business Development Center, and others to do site visits with small businesses to get them ready to re-open.

Gina Dollente, owner of Restoration: A Hair and Beauty Workshop in Imperial, talked about the struggles her industry is facing and how ready she is to open.

In cosmetology school, “I didn’t learn to do hair. I learned to be safe and to keep my clients safe and keep all my implements clean at all times,” Dollente said. “We will of course take people’s temperatures, wear masks, and social distance on top of all the sanitation we have always done.

“Please, we beg, do not let our salon become another doomed Imperial County business,” she said. “The state of California is the only state that has forced all salons to close. Our loyal clients have guiltily admitted to many of us that they have crossed the state line to get their hair done, their nails done, their waxings, their facials, all of the services that we provide here. I, of course, don’t blame them.”

Dollente said her own clients and local residents will “continue to take their business elsewhere, as other states and even other counties continue to open up more and more and we stay closed, killing more and more Imperial County businesses. I beg you to please allow us to reopen safely.

It seemed the county board was under a full-court press like it had not been since before Newsom demanded a return to Stage 1.

County Supervisors’ Chairman Luis Plancarte captured the feelings and perhaps the difference in the county’s ability to advocate for early re-opening this time around.

“How do we balance the physical, mental, financial health, everything, the toll that it’s taken on our people and our economy, on our resources?” Plancarte asked.

“Sometime back we looked at the possibility of asking the governor — we actually asked the governor — to consider opening up … to a higher level and let us select locally, if you will, like an ala carte menu, which things we might put in place and which things we might hold back,” he said.

“The timing of that was different than today … I think today will be the day we move forward,” Plancarte said. “Just know that the last time we looked at a similar possibility, we also had hundreds of letters and emails, asking us not to do so.”

Supervisor Ryan Kelley agreed, and said the conditions are much improved over the timing of the last attempt, and that the message public health officials would deliver Aug. 18 would show that.

Angulo then presented the current conditions, which showed a marked improvement in all categories. But she prefaced the data with a heartfelt address on what has transpired over the prior five months.

“It’s five to six months that we’ve been working with many different sectors within this community. … I’m on the phone on a daily basis, via email, talking to businesses, talking to schools, talking to religious leaders, talking to parents, just talking to individuals about the current situation, and everyone has a story,” she said.

“The Public Health Department also has a story, and it hasn’t been easy,” Angulo added. “We understand, we completely understand that businesses are important. We understand that schools play a key role in the education of our children, religious services (are) key to this community.

“But the Public Health Department also has to make sure that the steps that are taken are taken in a very safe and cautious manner, because we are dealing with lives of our children, our spouses, our parents, our family, our friends,” Angulo continued. “And we’re using data to drive our decisions as well as what’s happening in our community.”

She went on to highlight major changes seen in the last two to three weeks, including the decreasing number of patient transfers outside of Imperial County, noting that there were a number of days in which zero patients were transferred.

Angulo said the alternate care site at Imperial Valley College would be closing Aug. 19, with staff deployed to other areas of the state where they are needed. She added the supplies and equipment would remain in the event of a resurgence.

She said some 78 percent of the contact tracers and investigators sent by the state to assist the county had also been re-deployed elsewhere, with the agreement with the state remaining in place in case its services are needed again.

Angulo added that educational campaigns aimed at promoting the distancing and masking protocols in effect were continuing, including a new “Mask Up” campaign and the start of the production of a second video utilizing animated figures “Commander Fred” and “Comandante Elena” to promote masking, social distancing and sanitizing, among other things.

She also said more binational educational campaigns with Mexicali counterparts would be announced by the end of the week, including an emphasis on the upcoming Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, and a campaign aimed at farmworkers.

Health Officer, Dr. Munday also reported to the county board, speaking about his immediate request to get the county back at Stage 2 low risk and the department’s efforts to be ready to submit the variance criteria attestation form.

Almost all of that information presented was reiterated by Angulo in the Aug. 19 press conference.

At present, counties in California who have met the variance criteria have been allowed to re-open things like restaurants, church services and some businesses in outdoor settings, under controlled conditions with physical distancing and the use of facial coverings.

Munday said that presents a challenge for Imperial County, and other areas of the state, where the temperatures are so extreme. Imperial County is in the midst of a prolonged heat wave.   

“We’ve all learned that it’s much safer to be outdoors than to be indoors. Obviously here in Imperial County … that’s an especially challenging issue for us, and they (the state) are aware of that, and we’re thinking of thoughtful ways to work through these issues,” Munday said.

“But we know that being indoors, especially in a crowded situation, is really the highest risk kind of scenario, more of an issue as we move to the higher end of Stage 2, because a lot of the indoor environments are in the high end of Stage 2,” he added.

Elizabeth Varin contributed reporting to this story.

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