Merced County Times Newspaper
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‘Reopening’ Gets The OK After Week Of Big Words

Merced County entering Stage 2.5, with in-store shopping, dine-in restaurants


Merced County is heading (perhaps bracing) this week for the next stage of a reopening process that will see more and more local businesses back in action, and more freedom of movement for residents who want to expand their in-store shopping and dining options, among certain other things. 

It’s been nine long weeks since the county declared a public health emergency and the governor announced sweeping stay-at-home orders.

Late Tuesday night — after a week of ever-changing headline news, with back-and-forth debate on the benefits and risks of “opening up” — this region was approved by the state to transition to Stage 2.5 in what is being called “Governor Newsom’s resilience roadmap to recovery.”

Earlier that same day, the Merced County Board of Supervisors voted to proclaim an Economic Emergency in the region, and agreed to give the state until noon Wednesday as an ultimatum to approve their readiness plan, or they threatened to post it themselves on the county website, and signal to the community that the green light has been issued.

It was the second such push to expand the opening process in a week’s time as local leaders complained that officials in Sacramento have been playing political games while wielding state criteria like a weapon.

The state had already allowed 23 counties to reopen quicker under its Stage 2 guidelines, and on Monday the governor rolled out a new “self certification process” to speed things up for more progress. Stage 2.5. includes dine-in restaurants and walk-in shopping, with approved public health modifications. Also included are shopping malls and swap meets, office-based businesses, outdoor museums, open gallery spaces, schools and childcare facilities. Things like bars, gyms, movie theaters, salons, and indoor museums would open under Stage 3, as of right now.

“I don’t think anybody is advocating for a crazy, opening up of ‘everything goes back to normal.’” said Supervisor Scott Silveira at Tuesday’s meeting. “I think that would be foolish for people to do that, but we need to get to the next stage.”

Said Supervisor Daron McDaniel, “We have never said that we need to open up irresponsibly. We are talking about a responsible way of opening up. We just don’t want to choose winners or losers.”

Dr. Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp, the county’s public health director, said she hoped Merced County would get immediate attention from state officials after they submitted their updated readiness plan, but urged leaders and the community to become united in the recovery effort.

“My plea is when we decide … that we move uniformly, for better or for worse, and not having fractures here or there,” she told leaders. “When it comes to the residents, if they are confused than we are not doing a good job with the narrative, and they are confused about who is doing what, what city has adopted what, and what the county stance is, and I think that this is an opportunity as we are looking at some of these stages to identify the motion and the cadence that we are going to take overall, comprehensively because whatever is done at the more local levels in the county, it does impact, and vice versa, and we don’t want the residents caught up in the middle of that, or the health department, and unfortunately that is taking place.”

Indeed, the “reopening” comes at a time that’s marked by a fractured community, with widespread public comment and opinions split between those residents who want to continue the current shutdown orders until more COVID-19 testing is done locally, and those who point to a devastated local economy, mass unemployment and the decay of the social fabric that binds the community together.

Last week, Atwater leaders made national news (even the New York Times picked up the story as a brief) when they proclaimed their city a “sanctuary for all businesses” to open.

“We just did what you guys told us to do, period,” Atwater Mayor Paul Creighton told a packed chamber of residents gathered for a special meeting. “You guys put us up here. It’s very rare in today’s society that electeds do the right thing. They always do the wrong thing. So it’s time to do the right thing and listen to the people that put us here. We’re only here for a short period of time. We want you guys to survive and thrive. And it’s critical that the electeds here in this country and the state begin to listen to the people that put them there.”

Right after the unanimous “sanctuary” decision by the council, residents erupted in a standing ovation — complete with arms-over-head cheering and general jubilation as Mayor Creighton closed the meeting by saying “God Bless Atwater.”

Meanwhile, Sheriff Warnke wrote a letter to the State of California, decrying the “slaughter’ of the local economy, and vowing to not enforce coronavirus-related restrictions.

“Remember that the people elected a governor, not an emperor,” the sheriff wrote.

Warnke’s words prompted a followup editorial by several UC Merced professors who blasted this region’s top law enforcement official for statements that “risk putting the citizens of Merced County in danger.”

At Tuesday’s meeting in Merced, county leaders pointed out that entering Stage 2.5 is not a signal to “open our doors wide open.”

Under the new, less stringent state criteria released Monday, Merced County will have to show that it had no more than 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days (not met as of March 19 / 26.1 cases) OR a positive test rate of 8 percent of all tests performed countywide (met at 5.1 percent) OR fewer than 20 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on any day in the past 14 days (met with the highest day listing 11)

Nevertheless, Health Director Dr. Salvador Sandoval pointed out early Tuesday that Merced City cases are doubling at a rate of every 14 days, Los Banos cases are doubling at a rate of every 59 days, and the county as a whole is doubling in about 30 days. The county death toll has doubled since last week to include six residents who have passed due to complications from the virus. There have been 49 new cases confirmed in the county since this time last week.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were a total of 222 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the count began, and 81 of those are considered active. A total of 135 people have recovered.

During a presentation to the board, Dr. Nanyonjo-Kemp pointed out “consequences of misalignment” with the state, and indicated that the state will “come down hard on counties who are out of compliance”

She pointed to a new COVID-19 testing site that was set to open in Los Banos, but was pulled from consideration last weekend while other counties were afforded new sites. The state also refused a local request for the medication Remdesivir which has helped improve symptoms in hospitalized COVID-10 patients.

“We are using science, and by them taking the testing center from Los Banos they are using politics,” said Supervisor McDaniel.

McDaniel, the representative from Atwater, also defended his hometown while lashing out at the UC Merced professors who voiced their opposition to reopening.

“Let me be clear,” McDaniel said. “It is science that we are trying to work on here. It is social distancing that we are trying to work on here. And it’s on behalf of everybody else … It’s pretty easy to sit behind your computer when you are getting paid for the profession for you to sit home and point fingers at our sheriff, or at me for advocating on behalf of everybody else who isn’t working and who isn’t getting a paycheck. So let’s think about what was written in the paper yesterday, and them getting paid still by their university to sit back and point fingers at everybody else. They are pointing fingers at the people who don’t have jobs right now, and that’s who I’m defending.”

McDaniel also hinted at what law enforcement could look like going forward in Stage 2.5.

“With all the protocols in place, we can open responsibly,” he underscored. “I’m not talking about a large concert. I’m not talking about mass gatherings … In fact, I think if there is mass negligence, our sheriff will show up, and I don’t think he will take the stance of arresting, but maybe coaching and telling folks about the protocols in place, and  how you have to do it. … I think if it gets too bad, I would recommend to him using somebody as an example. I haven’t had that conversation with him, but I think he is really close to that thought process.”

As for the board’s Local Economic Emergency declaration, according to McDaniel, it formally acknowledges the economic hardship the community has suffered during the pandemic.

“It sends a message to the governor that we’re hurting,” he said.

However, McDaniel’s colleague, Supervisor Lloyd Pareira said he had a message of his own before the meeting’s end.

“I don’t want to see us voting to go to phase 2.5 as a license to go and do whatever you want … There are still responsibilities you to must have for yourself, your community and others.”

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