Saying families are suffering, a Riverside County supervisor wants to reject the state’s coronavirus reopening framework in favor of a county-controlled plan that would allow businesses to reopen faster and with no restrictions like capacity limits.
Jeff Hewitt’s proposal is on the Board of Supervisors’ Tuesday, Sept. 22, agenda. If passed, it would set up a showdown between one of California’s largest counties and Sacramento over when and how to ease mandates imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Representatives from the governor’s office and state Department of Public Health did not immediately respond Friday afternoon to requests for comment.
Like the rest of California, Riverside County is subject to the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, a four-tier, color-coded system that lifts COVID-19 restrictions based on case levels and positive test rates for the virus.
Currently, the county is in the purple, or most restrictive, tier. But as early as Tuesday, improving metrics could move the county into the red tier, which would allow shopping malls, restaurants, and other businesses to resume indoor operations with limits on how many people can be inside.
Before the four-tier system took shape, Riverside County, in a letter to state officials, proposed a phased reopening of businesses starting after Labor Day. Supervisors have openly expressed frustration with Sacramento’s changing COVID-19 rules, which they see as stifling the county’s earnest efforts to revive a pandemic-battered economy.
A Libertarian elected in 2018, Hewitt has been especially critical of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“The state’s lack of clear guidelines has left thousands of peoples (sic) uncertain about their abilities to pay bills and provide for their families,” Hewitt, whose district includes the Pass, Moreno Valley, Perris and Menifee, wrote in a memo to colleagues.
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“ … We (will) feel the burden of these economic impacts for years to come, it is time for Riverside County to take responsibility for our own wellbeing.”
In a phone interview, Hewitt said his office constantly hears from families desperate to get back to work and send their kids back to school. The shutdown has taken a toll on residents’ finances as well as their physical and mental health, he said.
“They’re dying in ways that aren’t like dropping out of a plane and hitting the ground,” Hewitt said. “They’re just slowly dying.”
The supervisor said his plan — which if approved would being Tuesday — is similar to what the county proposed to Sacramento before Labor Day.
“This has the possibility that we can come together and not only keep ourselves safe … but we’ll have it done by the people that know Riverside County the best,” he said.
Unlike the state plan, Hewitt’s plan wouldn’t limit capacities for reopening businesses.
“Putting some arbitrary percentage point on something doesn’t address anything … you end up one size fitting nobody,” Hewitt said. “If (businesses) are stacking everyone on top of everyone else, they’re going to lose a lot of business” from safety-conscious customers.
Under Hewitt’s plan, restaurants; wineries; breweries; places of worship; indoor offices; personal-care businesses such as body art shops and indoor malls could reopen after Tuesday. By comparison, the state framework only allows limited indoor winery operations in the third or orange tier, while breweries that don’t provide meals can’t open until the orange tier, and only then for outdoor operations.
Wedding receptions and group events at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less, would get the green light after Oct. 13. Gyms, movie theaters, and bars could reopen after Nov. 3.
Along the way, county officials, including those in the public health department, would evaluate metrics before the plan enters the next phase. Hewitt’s memo also stresses the importance of social distancing, face coverings in public and testing to control the virus, although it’s not clear from his plan whether businesses would be required to enforce masks and social distancing.
Hewitt’s proposal also would reopen gyms and movie theaters later than the state plan, although wineries could reopen earlier. The supervisor said his plan could be adjusted to let businesses reopen earlier, depending on the metrics and input from county experts.
Supervisors have worried that defying Sacramento could potentially put county funding at risk. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned rural counties that allowed businesses to open in defiance his stay-at-home order that they could lose disaster funding.
To that possibility, Hewitt on Friday replied: “You can’t put any monetary value on somebody’s life. These families’ lives are being ruined … (if we lose state funding), I’ll make that trade off any day … we’re going to have cuts in funding anyway.”
IF YOU GO
What: Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt’s proposal for Riverside County to forge ahead with its own coronavirus reopening plan is on the Board of Supervisors’ Tuesday, Sept. 22, agenda.
When: 9:30 a.m.
Where: County Administrative Center, 4080 Lemon St., Riverside
Information: www.rivcocob.org (Includes how to comment by phone)