After San Mateo County spent weeks teetering on the brink of joining the state's watchlist of counties that are not meeting state metrics for managing the coronavirus pandemic, the announcement came Aug. 1.
Starting Aug. 2, the mandate said, several specific types of businesses and services would no longer be permitted to operate unless they could do so outside or by pickup. Those include gyms and fitness centers, places of worship and cultural ceremonies, offices for non-essential business, personal care services, hair or nail salons and malls.
As of Aug. 4, San Mateo County has had 5,758 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 120 deaths, and California has had 519,427 confirmed cases and 9,501 deaths.
Counties have to meet all of the state's metrics for three consecutive days to get off the watch list.
Currently, San Mateo County's case rate, or number of cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period, is higher than the state's threshold, according to data on the California Department of Public Health website. The case rate should be no higher than 100 per 100,000 residents, but San Mateo County's is currently 114.8, according to the state public health department.
County health leaders have also been pushing back against the state's mandate. Dr. Louise Rogers, chief of San Mateo County Health, told the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the county's Health Officer, Dr. Scott Morrow, did not see the problem of coronavirus transmission in the business sectors that were ordered to close and "didn't see (the state) actions as warranted."
She pointed to problems with large group gatherings, failures to wear face coverings, increased exposure facing front-line workers and crowded housing situations as bigger factors for the transmission of COVID-19 in the community.
For leaders of local faith communities and owners of local gyms and salons, it's a challenge to figure out what to do next, given the halting green lights that have been given, then rescinded, by state and county officials. Here are some of their stories.
While many churches and places of worship have remained shuttered since March, others have made efforts to figure out ways to maintain a sense of community in person.
It appears many are offering worship services exclusively online, but some are taking creative steps to offer limited in-person services.
The Church of the Nativity, a Catholic church at 210 Oak Grove Ave. in Menlo Park has gone through several iterations of meeting offerings, according to pastor Monsignor Steven Otellini. Before the latest shutdown, the church had streamed services online and cautiously offered limited indoor services, requiring online reservations, spreading out households and reducing the church's capacity from about 400 to 90. People were asked to sanitize their hands and wear masks, and there was no community singing, he said.
The adjustments made services feel different and more subdued, he said, and attendance dropped between a third and a half. But, he added, "The amazing thing is that people are adapting to it. ...The desire to come to church is very important to them."
To his knowledge, nobody in the parish had contracted or died from the coronavirus.
With the shutdowns announced this week, the church will close its doors and will be offering masses and confessions outdoors, Otellini said. The church has a large landscaped area where services will be held, which should work until the weather worsens, he said.
He expressed some frustration about the categorization of businesses and services as essential or nonessential, and said he favored them being classified as safe or unsafe instead. " If we can operate a church and it's as safe and even safer than being in a grocery store or a K-Mart, why can't we continue?" he said.
At St. Anthony's of Padua, a Catholic church in North Fair Oaks, starting Aug. 9, the church will celebrate a shortened mass – lasting 30 to 40 minutes – outdoors. Parishioners are encouraged to bring picnic chairs and umbrellas. Services are also being offered online via YouTube and Facebook, according to its website.
For the local Muslim community, Friday prayer services have been suspended since March, said Kamal Fallaha, president of the Executive Committee at the Yaseen Foundation, a Muslim community-based organization in San Mateo County.
The community doesn't have an adequate facility to meet outside, and hasn't been able to secure permits to meet in local parks, he said.
Most recently, for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha on July 31, the Yaseen Foundation hosted a drive-thru celebration, with masked volunteers delivering donuts, coffee and children's toys to vehicles that passed through.
When asked how not being able to meet in person for regular services has impacted the Peninsula's Muslim community, Fallaha said, "It has impacted us big time."
Friday services not only offered an opportunity to worship, he explained, but people also used that time to socialize and check in on each other.
"Now we are disconnected," he said.
During these services, some attendees also made a habit of making small donations to help keep the meeting center clean and pay for utilities. Without those regular meetings, such donations are down, which has had a financial impact on the community, he said.
The community plans to be conservative and careful when it reopens, but before the latest county orders came, there were tentative plans to restart modified Friday services on Aug. 15. Now that start date could be delayed further, Fallaha said.
"We pray to God that relief will be soon, to lift this hardship from all of us as human beings. Humanity is suffering and we seek his help in lifting this hardship," he said.
He added that individuals and families can also do their part to curb the spread of the coronavirus, too. "God will help us if we abide by science," he said.
Kendra Dinh, who has owned Kendra's Spa at 1158 Chestnut St. in downtown Menlo Park since 2001, said that business is not good. She's doing what she can to pay the rent and keep her clients, she said. Though salons are permitted to operate outdoors, actually doing so may not be practical, she explained.
For instance, if she were to move her salon's hair cutting operations outdoors, even the slightest breeze could blow freshly cut hair toward neighboring cafes. Downtown visitors likely don't want hair blowing into their coffee, so she's not planning to offer haircuts outdoors. She said Monday that she planned to offer manicures and pedicures outdoors, but had to purchase some supplies first.
Over the last few months, state and county policy on gyms has varied, starting with mandatory closures, then pivoting to permitting indoor operations. Now that San Mateo County is on the state watchlist, indoor gym use is not allowed at all, leaving owners and workers with the only option of figuring out how to conduct business outdoors.
AXIS, a longtime personal training and exercise facility at 550 Ravenswood Ave. in Menlo Park, started out with the first shutdown in March by putting forward a three-month plan, sharing a commitment to follow public health guidance and securing a federal PPP loan, said Scott Norton, founder and CEO, in an email.
Since receiving the go-ahead to reopen June 18, the team offered indoor and outdoor training, limited the number of gym guests, mandated masks and hand washing, and disinfected equipment after exercises.
"We have followed every guideline possible and have spent so much time, money and blood, sweat and tears to make sure we could keep our team and clients safe," Norton said.
Then, Aug. 1, they were told that they would have to halt indoor operations.
"Having to close again was upsetting," Norton added, saying that the large space at the AXIS facility permits people to stay very spread out.
He also expressed skepticism that closing gyms like his would help keep the pandemic in check.
"We have so many safety measures in place; we are doing everything possible, yet businesses like ours, who are doing all of the right things, still have to close. If we felt this would make an impact, we would absolutely support it. However, is this really the course of action that will decrease the spread of COVID-19? When people are gathering in groups and not wearing masks?" he said.
He added that the gym is committed to being a place where people can get the exercise they need to boost their immunity, reduce stress, stay healthy and do what they can to protect themselves from the coronavirus. "It seems that COVID-19 is here to stay and workouts, proper nutrition, sleep and vitamin D are all important to keep our immunity strong," he said.
For another local gym, the latest closure "might be the nail in the coffin," said Lawrence McNeil, owner and founder of Bulldog Sports and Fitness, a personal training and youth flag football business located at 1610 El Camino Real in Menlo Park.
"It's been terrible," he said.
The dual business he's painstakingly built over the last decade in Menlo Park – a family-friendly neighborhood gym and a burgeoning youth flag football program in local schools – has disintegrated over the last few months since the pandemic struck.
Revenue declined 70%, and has remained so since the schools he works with to run his flag football program have put their programs on hold.
"Those who know me best know how the gym is my life's work," he said. "I aspired to have one neighborhood gym and I did it."
He said he was particularly proud of how some of the kids he used to train had been working for him at the gym to help coach the new generation of flag football athletes.
"It was just, like, my dream come true," he said.
The program, he said, specialized in teaching kids things like teamwork, sportsmanship, grit and mental toughness, and it received good feedback from parents.
But when the pandemic struck, the youth flag football program, which had been at Oak Knoll Elementary School for nine years, St. Raymond Catholic Elementary for eight, and had just launched at Encinal Elementary with plans to expand to Laurel School, crumbled fast.
Programs halted immediately with the first shutdown orders in March, and then in June he received another message saying that after-school programs would be shut down for at least another six months.
He dug into marketing the gym, offering private one-on-one training sessions. But no matter how much he offered things like extra scrubbing and cleaning, or air purifiers, no more than a few clients could be enticed to work out indoors, he said.
"The word is out there that enclosed space is like a death sentence," he said. "People are scared."
The business did receive a PPP loan, but the funds were gone within eight weeks, McNeil said.
He's had to lay off his staff of eight part-time employees, canceled garbage pickups and even electricity for a short time. He now finds himself running around town to meet with clients on public fields and tracks – and being grateful that some have stuck with him.
"It could be worse," he said. "I'm healthy. My family's healthy."
"As long as I can coach, whether it's one person per day or 10 people, I still feel like I'm completing my life work; still doing what my heart is made to do," he said. "I'm just really sad about my football teams. … How are these kids going to get along without teamwork, without competition?"
"I hope it gets better," he added.
The Almanac contacted a number of other faith communities, gyms and spas but did not receive responses by press time. How has your business or community been impacted by the pandemic? Let reporter Kate Bradshaw know by email at [email protected]