Santa Clara County officials are looking into the idea of allowing car parades and drive-through celebrations, potentially ending a public health prohibition in time for graduation ceremonies and other festivities that can take place behind the wheel.
But when exactly the county will loosen restrictions more broadly under the current shelter in place order remains uncertain, with no timeline set for entering "Phase 2" of the transition back to normalcy.
When asked during a virtual town hall meeting on Sunday, Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said the county is looking into the possibility of expanding the types of travel permitted under the county's shelter order, giving more flexibility for schools to conduct drive-through graduation ceremonies and other motorcade-type celebrations.
Williams stressed that, despite recent news coverage, Santa Clara's language in the public health order hasn't changed and has been consistent with other counties in the region in that it bans all travel deemed "nonessential." Those rules have since been interpreted to include drive-through celebrations, which has been a testy subject in recent weeks.
Williams acknowledged that these types of activities carry a lower level of risk due to the inherent social distancing.
Throughout the town hall meeting, hosted by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, residents questioned county leaders about the road to recovery and the opaque nature of when the region will follow in the footsteps of other California counties in scaling back prohibitions.
Newly reported cases of the new coronavirus show that the spread of the virus has flattened significantly in recent weeks, and hospitals are reporting no trouble accessing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and plenty of available beds in the event of a surge in patients.
Santa Clara Public Health Officer Sara Cody said the county is taking a cautious approach, repeatedly calling it "inching forward," starting with ending prohibitions on construction, outdoor recreation and outdoor activity. Once it's clear that the loosened restrictions didn't cause a resurgence in cases, the county can take further steps to open more businesses and sectors, she said.
But when asked directly when those steps will be taken, and whether she could say definitively that the shelter in place orders will be extended past May, Cody was reluctant to provide details, citing a need to stay consistent with other county health officers.
"Around the Bay Area we have been doing everything we can to work as a region, and one of the reasons to sort of keep our cards close is to enable time to be coordinated and communicate together," Cody said.
The pace in which counties can reopen businesses and services is largely dictated by the state of California, which has its own mandatory shelter order that supersedes individual county agencies. While state officials have announced that counties are permitted to ease certain restrictions under what it calls Stage 2 reopening, certain facilities -- such as schools, offices, restaurants and shopping malls -- must remain shut down.
Cody said the public needs to have confidence in knowing that, once these facilities are opened up again, they can go out while staying safe and protected from the virus.
"Our goal is to make sure that our community not only feels safe but is safe, so that when a sector does open people can go and access goods and services with all the social distancing protections in place and know that it's safe," she said.
New San Mateo County order to allow curbside retail pickup, dog grooming
San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow on Friday, May 15, amended his prior shelter-in-place health order to allow the reopening of additional businesses, starting on Monday, May 18, an action that aligns the county with the state's early Stage 2 reopening plan.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the State of California Resilience Roadmap on May 12, which outlined additional businesses that can operate statewide with health and safety modifications. Local health orders that are stricter supersede the state order, however.
The amended San Mateo County order continues to limit most activities and mandates that people keep a social distance of 6 feet from others and wear face coverings when outside of their homes except for limited circumstances.
The return of more retail
Under the revised health order, retail stores can offer curbside or outside pickup only, with certain restrictions. That means bookstores, jewelry stores, toy stores, clothing and shoe stores, home and furnishing stores, sporting goods stores and florists can reopen with safety protocols in place.
Customers may not enter the store, and orders must be placed in advance via phone, internet or other means. No customers may walk up to order. Pickup areas -- such as a sidewalk, street, ally or parking area -- must be immediately adjacent to the store and not situated so they result in a crowd of people. Stores in enclosed indoor shopping centers that do not have direct access to such areas may not reopen, the order states.
Businesses that supply retailers, including manufacturing, warehousing or logistics companies, may conduct only those operations that are related to retail.
Other businesses that can reopen
The order allows lower-risk businesses to restart their services, including car washes, pet groomers, dog-walking services, residential and janitorial cleaning companies and appliance repair outfits.
Outdoor museums with outdoor exhibits can also reopen, with customers wearing face coverings at all times. No customers may enter indoor spaces such as gift shops or exhibit rooms.
Offices in which employees cannot conduct business from home are also allowed to restart under the amended order. These businesses must minimize contact with members of the public, may not conduct indoor person-to-person commercial activity and must follow social distancing and face-covering requirements at all times.
What about recreation?
A county restriction on travel of more than 10 miles for recreation in San Mateo County will end, effective Monday. However, recreation continues to be limited in other ways:
• All public parks, trails and beaches west of State Route 1 are open only between the hours of 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Visitors may not get there by motor vehicle and they must come directly from their residences. The order encourages city leaders to ban parking near beaches.
• Outdoor facilities with high-touch equipment or that encourage gathering must remain closed to public access. Such facilities include playgrounds, gym equipment, climbing walls, picnic areas, dog parks, spas and barbecue areas. (In Menlo Park, public tennis courts, basketball courts and the skate park continue to be closed.)
“Progress on COVID-19 indicators related to hospital utilization and capacity makes it appropriate, at this time, to allow certain additional businesses and activities to resume with conditions,” San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow stated in a press release Friday.
“But I want to remind everyone these modifications to the shelter in place order are not being made because it is safe to be out and about. The virus continues to circulate in our community, and this increase in interactions among people is likely to spread the virus at a higher rate,” he stated.
Morrow said that the activities allowed by the order will be assessed on an ongoing basis and may need to be modified or restricted if the risk associated with COVID-19 increases in the future.
Despite Morrow's new order, an analysis by the Almanac this week showed that the county is falling short of meeting its key metrics for reopening.
In the press release Friday, Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor stated, “It has been a difficult time over the past eight weeks for our residents and businesses, but I am proud of our community. I see people using good judgment, wearing face coverings and safely social distancing. That is what it will continue to take as we enter this new phased reopening. We must continue to exercise caution and care as we support local businesses and move forward together.”
As of Friday, San Mateo County reported 1,602 cases of COVID-19 and 66 deaths, up from 1,575 cases and 65 deaths the day before.
Santa Clara County reported 2,453 cases and 135 deaths on Sunday, up from 2,418 cases on Saturday, with no additional deaths.
Find comprehensive coverage of the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.