Santa Clara County suffered a stinging setback over the weekend in its strategy to reopen the economy, when the state rejected its plan to allow more businesses, including gyms and hair salons, to reopen later this month.
The county's new order, which county Health Officer Sara Cody announced on Thursday, July 2, would have permitted more businesses to reopen on July 13. The plan also outlined a set of rules that all businesses must follow during the pandemic, including allowing telework when possible, shifting operations outdoors and imposing density restrictions, with no more than one employee per 250 square feet of gross floor area.
Santa Clara County Deputy County Executive David Campos said during a morning news briefing on Monday, July 6, that the state had issued an "initial rejection" of the variance application. He also indicated that the county will continue to work with state officials to advance the July 2 order.
The surprising denial marked the first instance since the shutdown took effect on March 17 in which the state explicitly rejected an order from the county's health officer. While county officials acknowledged last week that the order would require approval from the state, they expressed optimism that the approval would be forthcoming.
Despite the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases across the state and the nation, the county still has fewer cases per 100,000 residents than any other county in the Bay Area, Cody said last week. In other counties, including San Mateo, indoor dining is already allowed and hair salons are back in business.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman said during the July 2 news conference that he was hopeful that the state would "recognize all the work that the people and businesses of Santa Clara County have done to reopen our remaining businesses and approve our request."
Campos did not say why the county's strategy was denied. The county did not immediately provide any documents from the state pertaining to the rejection.
"We are still in conversation and discussion with the state regarding the application," Campos said. "We will continue to keep people informed about next steps."
The county's order also made clear that certain high-risk activities that make it infeasible to wear face coverings or maintain social distancing would remain prohibited for the foreseeable future. These include indoor dining, indoor swimming, concerts and sporting events.
Recent guidance from the state also places into limbo efforts by various cities, including Palo Alto, to allow outdoor dining. Campos alluded to weekend reports by The Mercury News about agents from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control visiting businesses in Gilroy and Morgan Hill and telling them to halt operations because they violate California's stay-at-home orders.
Newsom said at a Monday afternoon news briefing that state agents made 5,987 in-person visits over the weekend to bars and restaurants in counties on the state's monitoring list, with visits generally targeting parts of the state with known violators and establishments about which the state has received complaints.
In discussing the ABC visits, Campos said Monday the county did not receive any advance notice of the action and "cannot speak on behalf of the state."
Information from the California Department of Public Health suggests that the county did not have state clearance when it issued a local order on June 5 allowing outdoor dining. That order prompted Palo Alto to launch a "Summer Streets" program, which initially involved closing California Avenue to traffic to allow outdoor dining.
After a very positive reception, the city followed suit by closing University Avenue to traffic June 26.
The program, however, may be short-lived unless the county gets a green light from the state. Santa Clara County last month was placed on the state's "monitoring list" of counties where COVID-19 cases have been on a steady rise. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order banning many indoor activities, including indoor dining, in 19 counties, including Santa Clara, which make up more than 70% of the state's population. Newsom said the state is not shutting down businesses so much as asking them to shift operations outdoors.
On Monday, the list of counties on the state's watch list expanded to 23. However, Santa Clara County was taken off the list, suggesting that the county is meeting the required thresholds to reopen, Newsom said.
Despite this development, the state Department of Public Health is taking a firm stance on outdoor dining. State guidelines require counties that want to reopen more quickly to submit variance attestation forms, confirming that they have met the state's "readiness criteria." While some counties, including San Mateo and San Francisco, have submitted these forms and are allowed to move more quickly on reopening businesses, Santa Clara does not have an approved attestation at this time, according to the state.
In addition, some counties on the monitoring list have been granted a variance from the state that allows dining but only with outdoor seating (as well as takeout). Santa Clara had not received such a variance last week when it was on the list.
"Santa Clara County issued a local order opening outdoor dining, but the county does not yet have an approved attestation from the state to open indoor or outdoor dining," the state Department of Public Health stated in a response to this news organization.
It was not immediately clear on Monday morning how the disagreement between the state and the county over outdoor dining will impact local programs. Palo Alto officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether the "Summer Streets" program will be suspended to comply with state law.
This is a developing story that will be updated as more information becomes available.