Divide between Santa Clara County and California grows over reopening, outdoor dining
Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody revealed the new county order on July 2. Photo by Eduardo Cuevas.

There appears to be a growing schism between Santa Clara County and the state over plans to reopen more local businesses and even keep outdoor dining in the South Bay, particularly in light of recent actions by state agents to shutter South County restaurants over the Independence Day weekend.

Santa Clara County is no longer on a state watchlist for its hospitalizations as of Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in his briefing. But it remains unclear how the county will get state approval to reopen more businesses under a new local public health order issued Thursday, including personal care services, gyms, fitness centers and larger gatherings pending state approval or July 13, whichever comes later.

Local officials last week applied for state approval by attesting to certain public health criteria related to cases, contact tracing and hospital capacity, among other criteria, but the state denied Santa Clara County’s petition Saturday.

Santa Clara County joined 18 counties on the state watchlist because of the rising percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations, though the number of hospitalized patients remained relatively low.  By Monday, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties were off the state watchlist that now grew to 23 counties, including Marin in the Bay Area.

Nevertheless, the South Bay was denied its reopening application based on hospitalizations, according to Deputy County Executive David Campos.

“The issue is about how you read that number, the hospitalization number,” Campos told San José Spotlight. “We are being truthful and honest in presenting our data and numbers, and now it’s up to the state to decide what that means in terms of our variance application.”

County and state officials are now in discussions to determine what needs to be done, he added.

As the state continues to see rising cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19, Gov. Gavin Newsom previewed a “dimmer switch” to toggle back public health restrictions intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy of the California governor’s office)

COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen in Santa Clara County, but they were relatively low, going from 38 people on June 21 to 86 on Sunday. There are currently 36 COVID-19 confirmed patients in intensive care, compared to 21 on June 21.

In total, the county reported 5,408 confirmed cases as of Sunday with 559 new cases since Thursday — one of the largest increases to date. Deaths, though, have remained low with 164 lives lost, including three on Sunday.

But while the county’s hospitalized percentage increase is significant, the overall number is not, especially compared to larger counties. For example, as of Saturday, San Bernardino County — which has had state approval to reopen since May 22 despite remaining on the state monitoring list — currently has 461 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, with 158 in intensive care.

Meanwhile, the state is seeing unprecedented increases in cases and hospitalizations. California public health data for Sunday showed more than 11,500 new cases, the highest increase to date and among the largest tallies of any state. Newsom said hospitalizations have increased 50 percent in the last two weeks, to 5,790 patients statewide. The 14-day positivity rate — an important indicator of positive cases out of all tests conducted — is now at 6.8 percent, up from 4.5 percent in mid-June.

Santa Clara County’s rejection by the state appears to complicate local plans for reopening, especially as armed state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents told restaurants in South County they couldn’t operate outdoors, which has been allowed under the county’s current June 5 order. County officials said they did not receive prior warning about ABC’s enforcement.

But last Wednesday, Newsom announced the state would deploy multi-agency strike teams, including ABC, to identify businesses not complying with state public health orders. The governor said the heightened enforcement from Thursday through Sunday resulted in nearly 6,000 in-person visits to bars and restaurants from ABC.

In a statement, ABC said Santa Clara County did not have approval from the state to reopen restaurants, so the businesses were technically in violation of California’s stay-home order.

“Santa Clara County issued a local order opening outdoor dining, but the county does not yet have an approved attestation from the state to open indoor or outdoor dining,” a California Department of Public Health statement said.

But the county sharply disputed ABC’s claims. Campos said while the county prohibits dine-in restaurants, it allows outdoor dining, which the state order was “silent on, which would mean that whatever the local order says controls.”

“Our order is clear that it allows for outdoor dining to take place,” Campos said. “We have not been directed by the state to shut down outdoor dining, so as far as the county is concerned, pursuant to our order, outdoor dining is allowed.”

Asked about the state’s statement, Campos wrote in a message, “We stand by what we said.”

Contact Eduardo Cuevas at [email protected] or follow @eduardomcuevas on Twitter.

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