Santa Clara County officials are rolling back restrictions this week to allow drive-through celebrations and car parades, opening up the possibility for graduation ceremonies behind the wheel.
But when exactly the county will loosen restrictions more broadly under the current shelter in place order remains uncertain, with no timeline set for entering "Phase 2" of the transition back to normalcy.
When asked during a virtual town hall meeting on Sunday, Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said the county was looking into the possibility of expanding the types of travel permitted under the county's shelter order, giving more flexibility for schools to conduct drive-through graduation ceremonies and other motorcade-type celebrations.
Williams stressed that, despite recent news coverage, Santa Clara's language in the public health order hasn't changed and has been consistent with other counties' in the region in that it bans all travel deemed "nonessential." Those rules have since been interpreted to include drive-through celebrations, which has been a testy subject in recent weeks.
Williams acknowledged that these types of activities carry a lower level of risk due to their inherent social distancing.
On Monday, May 18, less than 24 hours after the town hall meeting, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department announced new revisions to its shelter in place order allowing for car parades, but with some restrictions. The order, which takes effect on Friday, May 22, allows for participation in car parades so long as all the occupants in the vehicle are from the same household. Cars are prohibited from stopping during the parade or gathering at a "fixed location," according to the county order, and bicycles and motorcycles are not allowed to join in.
The May 22 update is peppered with similar changes that, while modestly scaling back the rules, still preserve the broad requirements to stay at home and the closure of nonessential businesses. Retail stores can reopen starting Friday, but can only provide curbside pickup or deliveries. Museums, historical sites and public gardens are allowed to open, but visitors are restricted to outdoor areas only.
Throughout the town hall meeting, hosted by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, residents questioned county leaders about the road to recovery and the opaque nature of when the region will follow in the footsteps of other California counties in scaling back prohibitions.
Newly reported cases of the new coronavirus show that the spread of the virus has flattened significantly in recent weeks, and hospitals are reporting no trouble accessing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and having plenty of available beds in the event of a surge in patients.
Santa Clara Public Health Officer Sara Cody said the county is taking a cautious approach, repeatedly calling it "inching forward," starting with ending prohibitions on construction, outdoor recreation and outdoor activity. Once it's clear that the loosened restrictions don't cause a resurgence in cases, the county can take further steps to open more businesses and sectors, she said.
But when asked directly when those steps will be taken, and whether she could say definitively that the shelter in place orders will be extended past May, Cody was reluctant to provide details, citing a need to stay consistent with other county health officers.
"Around the Bay Area we have been doing everything we can to work as a region, and one of the reasons to sort of keep our cards close is to enable time to be coordinated and communicate together," Cody said.
The pace in which counties can reopen businesses and services is largely dictated by the state of California, which has its own mandatory shelter order that supersedes individual county agencies when the state's rules are stricter. Counties can adopt more restrictions but cannot reopen faster than the state, which serves as a baseline.
While state leaders have announced that counties are permitted to ease certain restrictions under what it calls Stage 2 reopening, certain facilities -- such as schools, offices, restaurants and shopping malls -- must remain shut down.
Cody said the public needs to have confidence in knowing that, once these facilities are opened up again, they can go out while staying safe and protected from the virus.
"Our goal is to make sure that our community not only feels safe but is safe, so that when a sector does open people can go and access goods and services with all the social distancing protections in place and know that it's safe," she said.
Santa Clara County reported 2,470 cases and on Monday, up from 2,441 cases on Sunday, with no additional deaths, for a total of 135.
Find comprehensive coverage of the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.