The signs of getting into a “new normal” can be seen all over town as more and more people in the Merced-area appear to be venturing out and shopping at variety of mom and pop shops, dining at locally-owned restaurants and just plain meeting each other and socializing, albeit in small groups with many wearing masks and keeping some space between each other.
This week, churches across the state were given state approval to open their doors for “in-person religious services with modifications.” And barbershops, salons and “curbside bars” are expected to be open soon as Merced County marching through Stage 2.5 of California Govenor Gavin Newsom’s controversial Resilience Roadmap.
Popular downtown eateries such as Bella Luna Bistro, the BBQ Pit, The Branding Iron and Five Ten Bistro, among many others, have opened their doors for dine-in service — at least to some degree. All the owners interviewed by the Times said they were happy to see customers coming in for a meal out on the town — a glimmer of hope, if you will — however, most said the return to business as usual has been slow going.
Meanwhile, the uncertainty about the future has not eased their minds.
“My biggest concern is what’s the new normal going to be like,” said Robert Matsuo of Five Ten Bistro. “Is it going to be 50 percent of what we had before? … That’s not going to pay the bills that continue to pile up at 100 percent.”
Matsuo says he is seeing more customers ask to sit at the tables that line Five Ten’s outdoor patio rather than the interior dining area.
Down Main Street, at the popular Bella Luna Bistro, Valley Chef Vinnie DeAngelo says he’s more than prepared for customers to come back, and he’s rolled out special price deals on meals for dine-in or take out. Nevertheless, what he would really like is to resume banquet and catering services — the main part of his enterprise.
And at the BBQ Pit, the staff spent a considerable amount of time pouring through several pages of regulations released by the Public Health Department in order to get the Pit’s opening right. Their facial expressions appeared amazed by all the “hoops” they were required to jump through.
State officials have released industry-specific guidelines that businesses must follow in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19.
The Latest Guide
Before reopening, all facilities must:
1. Perform a detailed risk assessment and implement a site-specific protection plan
2. Train employees on how to limit the spread of COVID-19, including how to screen themselves for
symptoms and stay home if they have them
3. Implement individual control measures and screenings
4. Implement disinfecting protocols
5. Implement physical distancing guidelines
Places of worship must limit attendance to 25 percent of the building’s capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.
Barbershops and hair salons may reopen but will be required to follow the specific protocols to ensure the safety of employees and clients, including universal masking of workers — and even clients.
All bars and restaurants holding Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) licenses may sell alcoholic beverages curbside, to go, in sealed containers with secure lids or caps.
Bars may sell curbside alcoholic beverages without selling accompanying meals. However, in-person bar facilities must remain closed. Restaurants with bar facilities can use the floor space of the bar for socially distant table seating, but cannot open the physical bar for seating with sales of alcohol without meals.
If an outbreak or cluster of three or more COVID-19 cases occurs in a local restaurant or other business, the Health Department is required to publicly report that information in order to identify other people who may have been exposed.
High school “drive-thru” graduations in Merced County will start this week and continue through next week, with Merced campuses celebrating on June 4. The Health Department is collaborating with school districts to develop safe practices for reopening in the Fall of 2020, but the Times is hearing word from sources that the “new-normal” in education will include a hybrid program of restricted classroom instruction mixed with “distance learning” based at homes.
The Health Order also states that public gatherings should continue to be limited to 10 or fewer individuals. Phase 2.5 does not allow mass gatherings of any kind. Businesses included in Stages 3 and 4 who have state licensure cannot legally open without risk to that licensure. The County is not involved in state licensure in any way.
In an effort to protect vulnerable homeless individuals from COVID-19 and slow the spread of the virus in our communities, 98 homeless individuals have been sheltered in hotel rooms in Merced County. This statewide initiative is known as “Project Room Key.”
Merced County allocated $3.5 million in funding to address housing, health care, toiletries and food needs for unsheltered individuals who test positive for COVID-19. In addition, services are available to those who have symptoms and require isolation based on medical advice, and those that are medically vulnerable and highly susceptible to the virus. The funding, originally allocated to address homelessness, was made available through a partnership between the Merced County Continuum of Care, Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, Human Services Agency and funds provided by state and federal COVID-19 response allocations. No General Fund dollars are included in this effort.
In addition to the nearly 100 individuals housed, staff with the Mass Care and Shelter Branch and community organizations have contacted more than 300 homeless individuals to provide immediate services, including food and other essential items and services.
Housing and health care services are provided on a priority basis, but food and toiletries are available to all.
The program was coordinated locally by the Merced County Human Services Agency, the Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Department, Merced County Department of Public Health, and community partners comprised of faith-based and non-profit organizations.
“We are taking a multi-agency approach to engaging with unsheltered homeless individuals and identifying those who need services and medical follow-ups due to COVID-19,” said Yvonnia Brown, Director of the Merced County Human Services Agency. “These efforts will not only provide much needed assistance to those individuals, it will also help contain the spread of COVID-19 within the community at large.”
Merced’s City Hall opens
Merced City offices are open for businesses, including City Hall and the Police Department.
The safety of the public and employees is being stressed with the opening, with social distancing measures in place throughout City buildings.
Most City service counters are open, however the Parks and Recreation Department remains closed at this time. Some City business will be conducted by telephone, email, video conference or by appointment.
City customers don’t have to come to City Hall to make payments. Customers can make payments:
· By using the automated phone system at 209-388-7289
· Paying online at: cityofmerced.org
· Using the drop box outside City Hall (check, cashier’s check or money order, no cash, please)
· Mailing payments (check, cashier’s check or money order, no cash, please)
Questions about utility bills can be emailed to utilitybillinquiry@cityofmerce
The City will not be charging people late fees and no new water services will be shut off if people cannot make their payments while the state of emergency is declared. However, they still will be ultimately responsible for the payment of all bills.
As of Wednesday morning, May 27, there were 273 confirmed cases (100 considered “active”) of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) in Merced County. Of that number, 166 have recovered and seven residents have died.
A total of 5,681 tests have been performed in Merced County: 5,337 negatives, 273 positives, and 71 still pending. These figures include testing through both the commercial and public health lab systems.
In California, there were 96,956 confirmed cases overall and 3,777 deaths.