Supervisors decided not to vote Tuesday on lifting some of Riverside County’s coronavirus restrictions, deciding instead to wait and see what changes Gov. Gavin Newsom will introduce later this week.
The board scheduled an emergency meeting to revisit the issue Friday, after Newsom is expected to provide further guidance Thursday on the state’s next phase of reopening.
Hundreds of businesses owners and residents rallied outside the County Administrative Center, demanding reopening, while the Board of Supervisors considered easing a ban on short-term vacation rentals, mandated face masks in public and school closures.
The board also weighed rescinding its order for golf courses, which were allowed to reopen last week with some restrictions.
But they ultimately decided that keeping their measure — which limits the number of players in a group and bans caddies — will actually allow golfers a better experience. The state rules that would take effect in its place would prohibit carts and leave golfers walking the course, said Board Chair V. Manuel Perez.
Perez co-authored the measure seeking to ease restrictions with Second District Supervisor Karen Spiegel. But after hours of public comment, debate and testimony from public health officials, he ultimately advised the supervisors to vote against it.
Spiegel said their original intent was to lift county orders that are more restrictive than the governor’s, outside of the one on face masks, which the state hasn’t required. But the supervisors determined it was better to wait until after Thursday, when Newsom will provide new guidelines for reopening.
“The worst thing we could do is rescind it today and have to add it back in,” Spiegel said.
Still, Fifth District Supervisor Jeff Hewitt urged the board to act as soon as possible to reopen to economy.
“Every day we wait, there’s that many more horrible tragedies of hardworking businessmen and their employees,” he said.
Riverside has the second highest number of coronavirus cases reported by any California county, after Los Angeles, and it has yet to see a downward trend in the number of cases and fatalities reported each day.
As of Tuesday, county health officials had confirmed more than 4,300 cases of the virus, resulting in 181 deaths. Three of the deaths were reported Tuesday, as well as 100 new cases.
But Kim Saruwatari, director of the public health department, says projections of the virus’ spread have improved greatly since social distancing measures began.
Currently, the county is on a trajectory to reach 6,500 cases by the end of May, with 240 deaths. But the outbreak was originally estimated to peak at 65,000 cases, with 1,200 to 1,700 deaths, Saruwatari said.
In an effort to better track the virus, the state on Wednesday will open eight new locations for county residents to get free coronavirus testing. That will give the county a total of 12 testing sites.
Appointments can be made by visiting lhi.care/covidtesting or calling 888-634-1123.
Under state guidelines, the county should have the capacity to test at least 2,400 people a day. As of Tuesday it could test up to 2,200 people a day, but the new sites opening Wednesday will bump daily capacity to 3,240, Saruwatari said.
The county will have to expand its capacity further over the next three months to continue meeting the governor’s goals, she added.
Saruwatari said officials are also making progress on contact tracing, which has grown to a staff of 70 individuals from just four. But state guidelines require even more widespread efforts, meaning the county will need at least 200 people on the job.
The health director noted some vital differences between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu that make tracking — and social distancing — important.
While each person sick with influenza typically infects about two more people, current research shows the rate of transmission for COVID-19 is around 5.7. That’s also higher than the transmission rate of around 3 at which SARS, another coronavirus, spread when it emerged in 2003, Saruwatari said.
“If we have 10 people that are infected, they’ll infect 57 individuals. And those 57 will in turn infect 325 people,” she said. “So it’s, again a large growth, if we don’t contain it over time.”