Jessica Cejnar / Wednesday, May 6 @ 1:24 p.m. / Emergencies, Health, Local Government

Risk Will Govern Reopening Del Norte County During COVID-19 Pandemic, Public Health Officer Says

As the community resumes a sense of normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Del Norte County’s public health officer warns against opening all high-risk businesses at once.


Using barbershops and churches as examples of high risk environments, Dr. Warren Rehwaldt said those opening those businesses should be “spaced out.” Rehwaldt also compared vacation rentals, most of which are single-family dwellings and are low-risk, as opposed to hotels, which are more complicated.


“It has two faces,” Rehwaldt said at a virtual town hall meeting Monday. “On one hand, it brings in income, and we know Del Norte depends on tourism in the summer — that’s a big part of our economy. On the other hand, they bring in more people who might bring in cases of coronavirus. I think we need to have a rational strategy that weighs those things and decide where and when we open things up.”


Joined by Sutter Coast Hospital CEO Mitch Hanna and Gerry Hemmingsen, chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, Rehwaldt fielded questions from the community ranging from when businesses can reopen to testing capacity.


The meeting’s host, Crescent City Mayor Blake Inscore, also relayed questions about self-isolation, mass gatherings, the pandemic’s economic impact to the city and county as well as how it’s affecting the homeless population.


Hemmingsen took up this last issue, noting that Del Norte County has partnered with Del Norte Mission Possible and Seven Angels Last Stop Services to provide showers to those who are homeless or “simply in need.”


Hemmingsen also brought up a county action to contract with local hotels to offer those needing it a safe place to shelter or self-quarantine.


There are also travel restrictions in place, both as a result of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 19 stay at home order and Rehwaldt’s March 27 order prohibiting stays of less than 30 days at lodging facilities, Inscore said. But, that doesn’t mean the county’s borders are shut down.


“We can’t say to somebody, because you have Nevada plates, you’re not allowed in Del Norte County,” Inscore said. “If people are parking and leaving vehicles for an extended period of time, we’re coming along (and saying) this is what the municipal code says. It’s important the public understands we can’t just all of a sudden decide out-of-state plates can’t be in Del Norte County.”


According to Rehwaldt, people have been handling social distancing and stay at home measures “pretty well.” Del Norte County has also been blessed with low disease activity, he said.


As of Wednesday, the three Del Norte patients who tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered, according to the Public Health Branch. A total of 409 tests have been administered in Del Norte County. Of those tests, the results for 12 are pending and 394 cases have turned up negative, according to the agency.


It’s easier for Del Norters to social distance and spread out, Rehwaldt said. But even in California’s large cities, curtailing mass gatherings and teaching people how to shelter in place slowed the virus to a crawl in Los Angeles, Alameda and San Francisco, though the pandemic isn’t over there, he said.


The problem with the virus is not its risk to the individual, but how it impacts the community, Rehwaldt said. Because this is the first time the human population has encountered the virus, if left unchecked several thousand people could get sick in six to eight weeks, he said.


“If we have 28,000 people getting sick in Del Norte County and 20 percent need to be in the hospital, that’s about 6,000 people in eight weeks,” Rehwaldt said. “That’s a little less than 1,000 people a week. We view it as a huge public health threat.”


The novel coronavirus is most dangerous to those who are elderly — 65 and older — and those with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, lung issues, and, especially, diabetes, Rehwaldt said. Though those who are young and healthy may be able to weather the virus without much trouble, they would still be contagious.


“If people who are susceptible and old had it all once, a lot of them would die and it’s really that simple,” Rehwaldt said. “That’s why the effort is out there… to prevent people from dying who would not cope with the virus very well.”


According to Rehwaldt, health officers weigh risk when determining how to go about allowing businesses to reopen. The two most high-risk environments include large groups of people who are spending time together in an enclosed space — Rehwaldt used churches as an example.


Another risky environment includes one person being in close contact with another — Rehwaldt mentioned barbershops, chiropractors and tattoo artists as examples. Time and distance, he said, are factors for transmitting the virus.


More low-risk environments include stores with big open spaces allowing access to a handful of customers at a time, Rehwaldt said. Those who work outside, like construction crews, could determine a way to modify their operations that would keep workers safe from virus transmission, he said.


“We have to space those kinds of environments out over the time course of reopening,” he said. “If we put them all in a group, especially at the beginning, that’s the sure recipe we’re going to have a problem (with) in terms of management. We know when we open up we’ll get more cases. We don’t want to get so many cases all at once.”


Rehwaldt advocated for “spreading out” the reopening of high risk businesses mixed with those environments where virus transmission could be lower. In addition to looking to state and federal experts for guidance, Rehwaldt said local agencies are also looking to Del Norte County business owners to help prepare for this.


“I don’t want to mislead people into thinking we have a timetable set up for anything,” he said. “We can’t bunch together all the high risk businesses at once.”


Mass gatherings, such as the concerts organized by the Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness, are also risky environments, Rehwaldt said. Attendees would have to maintain a distance from each other, he said. Face coverings could also be mandatory for those environments, he said.


The same goes for churches, Rehwaldt said. Singing and talking are possible avenues for the novel coronavirus to jump from one person to another, he said.


When it comes to COVID-19’s economic impact to Del Norte County, Hemmingsen said he and his colleagues have advocated for opening up “as long as it’s well-planned” and safe. However, he said, the county is an arm of the state and is obligated to follow state law.


“There are consequences in the fact that the state holds the purse strings,” Hemmingsen said. “We certainly have the ability to make rules more stringent than the state, but not less stringent without going against the law. If we do that, these people that have state certifications like salons, if they were to open up, they could put their business in jeopardy. We can’t make a rule or a law that overrides that and is legal.”


Hemmingsen said the county is working on a reopening plan that allows for some businesses to open sooner than others. For those with riskier environments, reopening may be two months or more down the road, he said.


“I would say 90 percent of businesses in the community depend on that summer influx of people to keep their business going for the rest of the year,” Hemmingsen said. “We have to make our money in four to five months out of the year to sustain us for the rest of the year and we’re not going to see that this year. That’s devastating for this community and we’re going to do everything we can to ease that pain. I just don’t have all the answers yet and time will tell.”


On Monday, Newsom announced that the state can begin to move into stage 2 of a 4-stage framework to reopen lower-risk businesses and public spaces. The state is expected to release public health guidelines for some retailers, manufacturers and logistics businesses to resume operations.


Some examples of businesses that can open with modifications include bookstores, clothing stores, florists and sporting goods stores, according to the governor’s office.


Counties can move more quickly through Stage 2 if they can meet the state’s readiness criteria. The readiness criteria includes a low prevalence of COVID-19, increased testing and contact tracing capacities, a prepared healthcare system should cases increase suddenly and the ability to protect those at risk for severe illness.


Counties have to create and submit a readiness plan that’s publicly available.



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