Jessica Cejnar / Tuesday, May 26 @ 4:51 p.m. / Community, Emergencies, Local Government

Public Demands Clarity on Travel, Lodging, Masks After COVID Count Climbs to 40 Cases

Though most of Del Norte County's 17 new COVID-19 cases were identified through aggressive contact tracing, many were "genuine new cases," according to the county public health officer.

"(There are) probably at least eight to 12 new cases of that nature. Probably more depending on how you look at it," Dr. Warren Rehwaldt told county supervisors Tuesday. "Some of the cases were directed by clinics who turned out to be in contact with cases we're investigating. We're seeing community spread in real time doing this contact tracing."

Rehwaldt gave a COVID-19 update to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors after a Memorial Day weekend that saw the case count rise from 23 at the end of Friday to 40 as of 9:35 a.m. Tuesday.

Of the 933 total tests that have been administered in the county, the results for 52 are pending and 841 have come back negative, according to the Public Health Branch. Seven people have recovered, according to the Public Health Branch.

There have been no hospitalizations and many who tested positive over the weekend were asymptomatic, Rehwaldt said.

The public health officer fielded questions from county supervisors and the public claiming confusion over who’s required to wear a mask and when. Some were concerned about crowds at local beaches and innkeepers opening their hotels and vacation rentals to tourists and vacationers despite a state mandate against non-essential travel.

Del Norte County Board Chairman Gerry Hemmingsen and resident Jacob Chilcott, who lives near South Beach, brought up the issue of travel. Hemmingsen said restrictions regarding non-essential travel is still in place.

Chilcott noted that Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal warned visitors to stay away and communities in the Lake Tahoe area closed to tourists over the weekend.

“Some communities are writing fines to people that have traveled to their community for the amount of $1,000,” Chilcott said. “Why is Del Norte County not addressing this? Particularly during this time of a spike in cases, why are we not attempting to enforce the essential travel order? It just seems like a gross irresponsibility to say that it’s too difficult to enforce.”

The number of positive cases began to climb just before Del Norte County received a variance to move through Stage 2 of California’s four-stage Resilience Roadmap plan on May 15. But, Rehwaldt said, he doesn’t think that increase had anything to do with stores reopening or some restaurants reintroducing indoor dining.

Rehwaldt attributes the increase in cases to a waning diligence when it comes to people social distancing, washing their hands and wearing masks. Private parties held around Mother’s Day may have also attributed to the burst of positive patients, he said.

Since May 13 public health staff have identified positive cases at Pelican Bay State Prison, in the agricultural community and at the hospital, Rehwaldt said. Many are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, he said.

“Sooner or later every part of our community is going to get touched by this virus,” he said. “People talk about the first wave — the first wave is really hitting us for the first time in a way that makes a difference and get people’s attention. We want people to take it seriously. We still don’t have hospitalizations, but sooner or later someone’s going to get sick enough to be in the hospital.”

Early in the Memorial Day weekend, Rehwaldt issued an order to hotels and vacation rentals reminding owners of his order against short-term rentals for vacationers. Some hotels were “pretty much full” over the weekend, he told supervisors Tuesday, with tourists showing up in the community to “enjoy the weekend.”

Trying to distinguish between those who are recreating and those traveling for work or other valid reason is difficult, Rehwaldt said. But though there wasn’t much the Public Health Branch could do to address the hotels that opened to recreators — Rehwaldt said his staff found out about them on Friday — it’s something that will be addressed.

“We’re going to have to have a conversation with those folks to make them realize we’re able to monitor this and will,” Rehwaldt said. “We don’t want to see this happening over and over again all summer until we’re comfortable we’re in a place where it should happen. A lot of that depends on the state.”

Though Del Norte County can issue stricter stay-at-home guidelines in response to the pandemic than the state, it can’t relax those safety mandates, Rehwaldt said.

Following the Board of Supervisors meeting, questions about how the Del Norte Public Health Branch or the Del Norte Office of Emergency Services would respond to those hotels and vacation rental owners that opened their doors on Memorial Day were referred to law enforcement.

Crescent City Police Chief Richard Griffin told the Wild Rivers Outpost that he would address enforcement issues with the Public Health Branch.

In addition to travel restrictions, District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin and TAB & Associates Inc. owner Thomas Barnes brought up mandates regarding masks.

Gitlin, noting that many of the new cases were from asymptomatic individuals, said some businesses like Walmart and Safeway aren’t requiring their employees or customers to wear masks while Home Depot is requiring customers to wear masks to enter the store. One person, he said, began to hyperventilate while wearing a mask.

Gitlin also told Rehwaldt that he was concerned he’s “operating in a vacuum.” The county supervisor brought up news report about the McKinelyville Chevron gas station and Aztec Grill, noting that Humboldt County’s public health officer had asked those who visited the business between May 15 and May 20 to get tested.

“Why are we not hearing this kind of information?” Gitlin asked Rehwaldt. “Why are we not knowing more information about these 40 people in our community?”

Rehwaldt said that though Dr. Teresa Frankovich identified a specific place and timeframe when she asked those Aztec Grill customers and employees to be tested, she didn’t name specific individuals. Del Norte County hasn’t experienced an incident where that kind of public request for information is necessary, Rehwaldt said.

“We get information to people who absolutely need to know it,” he said. “People can self-identify if they want to, but we’re not going to make the assumption that it’s up to us to identify them publicly.”

As for masks, Rehwaldt said though he urged people to wear them when disease activity was low to help them get used to it, people are required to have masks on them in public and to wear them when in a business. There are exceptions to those who can’t wear a mask for medical reasons, however, he said.

Though it’s required, Rehwaldt said Public Health staff wanted to give businesses the options to be able to enforce mask-wearing comparing it to common “No shoes, no shirt, no service” rules. Staff will “check out” businesses not complying with mask requirements, but, Rehwaldt said, he hopes that more will pay attention going forward.

“We could technically cite people,” he said. “It would be a burden on law enforcement and the courts, but we can if we have to, and we’re not taking that off the table.”

There are a total of 94,558 positive COVID-19 cases in California and 3,795 fatalities as of Monday, according to the California Department of Public Health. More than 3,000 people with confirmed COVID-19 cases have been hospitalized and 1,062 are in intensive care units statewide.


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