When it comes to the gradual reopening of schools and businesses, California counties hang on the words of state health officials. Each week, they give counties approval to restart different sectors of the economy or not, based on the COVID-19 case rate and test positivity threshold established by the state’s color-coded tiering system.
Whether or not a county can move up depends on several factors, such as how many people live there, how many tests are being administered, and whether there are outbreaks at schools and nursing homes. During the past two months, 10 counties have contested their tier status using the state’s readjudication process, which allows counties to request a reassessment when they’ve been moved back a tier. But the state only approved four of those requests.
While many counties were successful in moving to less restrictive tiers at the start of the pandemic, several have been backsliding in the past few weeks. Last week, only one county moved forward a tier. This week, none moved forward and 11 moved backward.
“Going into the purple tier is quite an impact on many of our local businesses, including restaurants,” said Shasta County spokesperson Kerri Schuette. “It is a hardship to go into the purple tier.”
After the state has determined a county must move back a tier, it allows county health departments to submit requests for readjudication if the county feels there’s been a data discrepancy, or if the county believes its rates don’t accurately reflect its current situation due to other outstanding circumstances.
The tiers mostly place restrictions on how bars, restaurants, entertainment centers, gyms and other businesses can operate. But many counties say COVID-19 isn’t being spread in those locations, and most of their cases are traced to home gatherings, workplaces and congregate care facilities.
Placer County requested readjudication last week, in part because they felt moving back a tier would unfairly punish restaurants and other establishments.
“There is little evidence that most of the sectors subject to additional restrictions in the Red tier are a major driver of community COVID-19 transmission in Placer County,” they wrote in their appeal. “Further restrictions risk damaging trust and compliance that has stemmed from the County’s efforts to educate and reinforce social norms. These restrictions may also risk encouraging private gatherings as an alternative to gathering in public, more regulated establishments.”
That request was denied. Placer County Supervisor Kirk Uhler recently told CBS Sacramento that county leaders “won’t enforce” the state restrictions in the red tier and advised business owners to do whatever it takes to stay open.
When Shasta County was at risk of moving into the most restrictive purple tier, they filed a request for readjudication, arguing that an outbreak at a local school brought their case and positivity rates up.
The state denied the request, arguing that the school is not an isolated institution and was likely generating community spread.
Since late September, San Mateo County has requested readjudication three separate times. They were approved one time, when they were able to demonstrate an error with lab results at one of their testing sites.
Sacramento County recently requested readjudication, arguing there had been several dozen false positives related to a nursing home outbreak.
“We were notified of a discrepancy with one of the long-term care facilities,” said Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye. “We’re submitting to the state to say hey hold off, could you freeze us in red until we figure this out?”
The state denied Sacramento’s request and moved them into the purple tier, stating that they could not assume that the results were false positives.
Restaurant owners across the state have complained that the tier system unfairly punishes businesses, especially when a county is pushed over the threshold because of an outbreak at a long-term care facility or a school.
Riverside County asked the state for an additional two weeks to allow their data to “stabilize” after Labor Day weekend.
“Previous surges appear to be linked to large gatherings over holiday weekends and similarly these recent increases in cases are evenly spread out over various geographies and demographics,” they wrote on their request form. “As a result, we request to remain in the red tier for an additional 2 weeks until our data stabilizes from the Labor Day weekend reporting.”
The state denied Riverside’s request.
On Tuesday, state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan said the tier system is necessary to mitigate COVID-19 spread statewide, and that California is still in a less restrictive position than it was earlier in the pandemic. On Aug. 31 there were 38 counties in the purple, or widespread tier and only two counties in the least restrictive yellow tier. Now there are 12 counties in purple and five in yellow, with the rest in orange and red.
“We started seeing some slow increases, probably the beginning of October,” Pan said. “ As we’ve seen more reopening, which is anticipated, we’ve started to see more cases and more concerns about increasing community transmission.”
She says that shift should make it clear that people need to wear face coverings in public, stay six feet from others and avoid gatherings.
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