SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Humboldt County on the northern California coast was one of the first in the state to get the governor's green light to open restaurants and shops after a two-month state blockade by coronavirus.
With only about 50 confirmed cases in the entire month of April in 130,000 county, many breathed a sigh of relief because they had survived the worst. Soon, however, county officials saw a troubling trend: nearly 30 new cases in a two-week period and the first two deaths.
That has prompted Humboldt County officials to take a more cautious approach to the reopening, in what may be a harbinger of the "toggle switch,quot; that local officials are likely to negotiate as they exit the shutdown.
"We have to recognize that due to some pretty serious increases we've seen in the cases and recently, two deaths, it's wise to take a really careful approach and open things up a little more slowly than we'd really like," said the supervisor. Virginia Bass, whose district includes Eureka, the county's largest city with 27,000 people.
Governor Gavin Newsom approved 45 of California's 58 counties to reopen some businesses since May 8 when he relaxed his original order to stay home in mid-March. Los Angeles County, where more than 2,400 have died, is moving more cautiously, allowing curbside pickup at closed shopping centers to resume on Friday. Rural Modoc County, where no cases have been reported, reopened businesses the first week of May.
In Humboldt County, known for its beautiful scenery and flourishing marijuana fields, the numbers have been low. But the coronavirus also lurks there, and on Saturday the county had 91 cases.
Businesses must submit a health and safety plan and meet a list of requirements before reopening is certified. In a video released this week, Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich said the county will continue to accept applications, but may need to slow down the certifications to "match what is happening on the ground." .
Since the county received its authorization on May 13, hundreds of the 6,500 licensed companies have requested a restart, Sheriff William Honsal said in a video this week in which he answered journalists' questions. The county's website shows that 255 were certified to reopen as of Friday.
"People want to open their business and I agree … it is time for certain businesses, but I understand, it will be a slow process," said Honsal.
About 100 restaurants have applied but none have been approved to resume dinner service, he said.
Neither Frankovich nor Honsal responded to requests for interviews from the Associated Press.
Frankovich said in the video that the new cases are due to various groups of viruses, mainly the result of people who gather outside their homes and make non-essential trips outside the county.
"People are moving around more in our community despite our shelter-in-place order, and people are getting together to some degree," he said. "And some people travel for nonessential travel."
One of those outbreaks is at Alder Bay Assisted Living, where a 97-year-old woman died on May 17 and another resident died on Tuesday.
Administrator Mark Stephenson said the facility's first positive case on May 6 was a worker who started feeling sick the day after a shift. Since then, seven residents and three other employees have tested positive, he said.
That prompted the establishment to ban all foreigners except essential health care workers, and to intensify the use of personal protective equipment, he said. Authorities have not said how or where the employee was infected.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that disappear within two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more serious illnesses, such as pneumonia and death.
Austin Allison, an Eureka councilman, said the recent surge in cases has raised some doubts, which he compared to "squeezing the brakes."
"It was kind of a delay in a faster launch," he said. "For a time, at Humboldt, I think there was a two or three week period where we didn't have more than one case every day or so. So the public was getting too confident."
Allison, who works as a cardiac monitoring technician at a hospital, said companies are eager to reopen and that the community is suffering financially, especially due to its dependence on tourism.
Ryan Rice, a forestry contractor who helped organize the Facebook group Open Humboldt, said people are becoming increasingly restless. He said the group would like to see small locally owned stores and locally owned restaurants with security plans allowed to open soon.
"We do not want to go against the law, we do not want to go against the orders, but we believe that the timeline of business opening in Humboldt County is severely skewed," Rice said.
Meredith Maier, co-owner of the Six Rivers Brewery in the city of McKinleyville, said she applied for a county certification but has not yet been approved for the dinner service. Maier said he understands why health officials want to proceed with caution in a rural community that has relatively few intensive care beds.
"At any moment we have a sudden increase, and suddenly we have hospitalizations, it could be very dangerous for us very quickly," he said.
The new numbers have led the locals to close ranks.
The sheriff asked visitors to stay away during Memorial Day weekend and warned those who came to work harvesting marijuana to leave, saying they could face appointments.
"We would be in a different place if those people didn't travel and didn't expose themselves and bring him here to Humboldt County," Honsal said. "So we want you to know that outsiders are not welcome right now."
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