With 42 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Orange County issues new health order and tries to reassure public

Coronavirus
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Orange County officials on Wednesday tried to clear up confusion over a public health order that left some businesses wondering whether they can still operate.

Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick reported 42 cases of coronavirus in the county including 12 people who contracted the virus within the local community. Another 22 are travel-related, seven involved person-to-person transmission and one remains under investigation, Quick said.

The health order she issued Tuesday had laid out broad restrictions for where and how residents can gather — making exceptions only for those involved in so-called "essential activities" such as farmers, grocery store workers, law enforcement officers and first responders. It came as local governments in nearby areas, such as Los Angeles, called for the closures of schools, restaurants' dining areas and bars not serving food.

But on Wednesday, Quick issued a new, amended order explicitly stating it does not prohibit activities such as attendance in schools, "going to work, or performing essential services." However, it asks residents and workers in the county to restrict their movements in accordance with recommendations from the California Department of Public Health.

County officials said the restrictions are not mandatory and will not be enforced by law.

"Orange County is not shut down for business," Supervisor Don Wagner said. "Don't turn away your business."

Businesses that could violate the social distancing guidelines outlined by state health officials — like keeping six feet apart — include movie theaters, gyms and health clubs, bars and restaurants not offering take-out, delivery or drive-thru, according to public officials.

Meanwhile, O.C. Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said one firefighter came into contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19. The fireman is currently staying at a hotel in isolation from his co-workers and family, Fennessy said.

At least another dozen firefighters may have had contact with a possible coronavirus patient, the chief said.

Tuesday's health order happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day and applied to bars since they're hubs of gathering and considered "non-essential" in accordance with state guidelines.

"There is not better time to test that procedure than on St. Patrick's Day," Sheriff Don Barnes said, explaining he and deputies approached a few bars that day.

"They were not informed of the order," Barnes said. "And they were completely cooperative with us... we’re asking for the public's voluntary compliance. That’s what we’re looking for."

According to Wagner, his and other county supervisors' offices received calls from several businesses asking if the order applied to them. Their concerns and confusion led to health officials drafting a new order clarifying it is "not a lockdown."

"Unfortunately, the order as written caused wide-spread confusion," county officials said in a statement Wednesday.

The previous order included some broad language that apparently led to mixed messages.

"All public and private gatherings of any number of people, including at place of work, occurring outside a single household or living unit are prohibited," the Tuesday order states.

But county officials have clarified is it is not being heavily enforced, and as a voluntary call for cooperation, is not considered a "shelter-in-place" order.

Meanwhile, millions of Californians, most of them in the Bay Area, remain under a shelter-in-place order that restricts their movements to only certain activities when going outdoors — getting food, supplies, medical attention or getting out to exercise are all OK.

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