Modoc County plans to reopen schools, businesses in defiance of California’s stay-at-home order

California
Deer cross Main Street in Alturas, in California’s Modoc County, in December 2019. The county was the first in California to reopen in violation of a statewide order. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Deer cross Main Street in Alturas, in California’s Modoc County, in December 2019. The county was the first in California to reopen in violation of a statewide order. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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Sparsely populated Modoc County in California’s northeast corner plans to allow the reopening of its schools, hair salons, churches, restaurants and the county’s only movie theater Friday, becoming the first county in the state to ease out of stay-at-home orders and flout the governor’s mandate.

Ned Coe, a cattle rancher and county supervisor, said Thursday that the county across the border from Oregon has no confirmed COVID-19 cases. After consulting with health officials, the Board of Supervisors voted to reopen Friday, he said.

“Just as our physical health is vital for our citizens, so is the mental health and the economic health of our citizens,” Coe said.

The plan asks business owners in the county of about 9,000 people that spans 4,200 square miles (11,000 square kilometres) to make sure customers remain 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. It asks restaurants to cut their capacity by half and requires residents who are 65 or older or have underlying health conditions to continue to stay home.

Coe said county officials sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom about a week ago outlining their plan, which he said meets the guidelines outlined by the governor for stay-home orders to be eased out in phases, but they haven’t received a response. He said he was not worried the state might take legal action against the county for violating Newsom’s order, which does not yet allow such businesses to reopen.

“The governor himself has indicated that it is time to start opening in a staged and safe manner, and that will be different for different areas of the state,” he said.

Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, but when asked about Modoc County’s plans at his daily coronavirus briefing, Newsom did not say whether he would move to stop the reopening.

“Nothing would please me more than pleasing those local officials … but we’re not out of the woods,” he said. “No part of the state, no part of this country, few parts of the globe have been immune to this virus. ”

He also reinforced that while local governments are free to adopt more stringent guidelines, they cannot adopt looser ones.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death, and nursing homes have been hit hard.

In the Modoc County seat of Alturas, population 3,000, where restaurants serving Mexican, Italian, Chinese and other cuisines cater to travelers using Highway 395, some restaurant managers were removing tables or spacing them out to make sure they are ready to keep the required distance between customers.

Most parts of the county are so sparsely populated that people already keep their distance from each other, Coe said. He said the hairstylist he frequents has only one chair at her salon and works alone.

“Social distancing was the norm here before it became the popular thing in the state,” Coe said.

The plan will be revisited after two weeks, and the stricter measures could be reinstated if at least two people test positive for the coronavirus, according to the new guidelines.

At Brass Rail, a large Basque restaurant in Alturas, employees were getting the bar area ready to open Friday by spacing out tables, said owner Jodie Larranaga.

“Everyone knows each other very well in this town and we can’t wait to see each other. Most people here are pretty fed up and done and over it,” she said of the shelter-in-place orders.

Larranaga said she will have signs throughout the bar reminding people about social distancing and other guidelines but she has no plans to police her patrons.

“My bar tables are already far apart but if people pull their stools together, I’m not going to stop them,” Larranaga said.

“As far as I’m concerned, right or wrong, that’s their choice. They are adults,” she added.

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