Government / Politics

San Benito County seeks to ease more shelter-in-place restrictions

Supervisor Botelho said county was “one infection away” from failing to meet state requirements on easing restrictions.

San Benito County has taken additional steps in working to reopen parts of the local economy by submitting a variance application to the California Department of Public Health. If the application is approved, additional businesses would be able to open as part of Stage Two of the state’s four-stage roadmap for lifting the stay-at-home order enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health and Human Services Agency Director Tracey Belton told the Board of Supervisors at its May 12 meeting that the county submitted its variance application that morning. The county also submitted documentation proving it met criteria required to accelerate Stage Two, such as no more than one COVID-19 case per 10,000 people in the last 14 days; guidance for employers on how to protect essential workers outlined in Stage One of the state roadmap; a minimum testing capacity of 1.5 per 1,000 residents; sufficient contract tracing; and hospital capacity to treat at least a 35% surge of COVID-19 patients. 

As of May 12, there have been 58 confirmed COVID-19 infections in San Benito County since February, with three currently active, 53 recovered and two deaths.

Belton said the application will be reviewed by the state health department, and that the county could ease restrictions once it receives permission on the state website.

“Today the governor is expected to release guidance on how to expand into that expansion, so we look forward to that,” Belton said. 

California entered Stage Two of reopening on May 8, which allows curbside delivery and pickup for retail businesses including bookstores, jewelry stores, clothing and shoe stores, home and furniture stores, sporting goods stores, antique stores, music stores, and florists. The second part of that stage is expected to allow for the reopening of destination retail, personal services including tanning facilities and car washes, offices, dine-in restaurants, and schools. 

At the meeting, Supervisor Anthony Botelho warned that though San Benito County is looking to gradually progress through Stage Two, health risks still exist. 

“We’re well on our way, but the fact of the matter is we were one infection away from not being able to submit that paperwork in that variance,” Botelho said. “The public needs to know that, and the public needs to help us comply with these guidelines that are demonstrated through our workshops and the orders that have come down from the state.” 

Botelho said that resident cooperation enabled the county to reopen some businesses. He asked the other supervisors to stay the course, adding that they are probably receiving calls from residents to follow other counties in resisting the governor’s orders.

Supervisor Peter Hernandez questioned the state’s requirements for counties to ease restrictions. He said they were “almost impossible to meet” and that it appeared the state was making things up as it goes along.

“To me it seems outrageous to ask for us to have less than six cases within 14 days,” Hernandez said. “We’re almost intentionally trying to not open up.”

In response to Hernandez’s request to explain how the state comes up with its formulas, interim Public Health Officer David Ghilarducci said he didn’t know how the state came up with the numbers. He said the intent from a public health perspective is to have an objective means of measuring the rate of COVID-19’s spread, as well as the ability of the healthcare system to respond to it.  

“I think the state order makes sense from that perspective, that it provides benchmarks for counties to meet and to shoot for,” Ghilarducci said.

He also said he did not have a timeline of how long San Benito County would remain in Stage Two.

“It depends on what happens, how the disease spreads,” Ghilarducci said. “Obviously we’re very concerned about a boomerang in the fall. Prior pandemics have shown a similar pattern, so we’re going to be carefully watching for that.”

During public comment, three residents spoke in favor of the county’s actions, while eight others spoke against the state’s stay-at-home order, complaining of a loss of civil rights. Hernandez then called for San Benito County to file suit against California. He quoted the 14th Amendment, questioned how essential businesses are categorized, and said the state’s policies were unclear and dividing communities.

Though Hernandez’s request was not addressed following his remarks, Supervisor Jim Gillio said Hernandez could follow up with absent board chair Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz, because there was no support for it from the supervisors who were present. Gillio also directed Hernandez to work with De La Cruz on a second request to agendize an item relating to the Constitution on Sept. 17, which is Constitution Day.


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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is BenitoLink Co-Editor and Content Manager. He joined BenitoLink as reporter intern and was soon brought on staff as a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. He is a San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily. He is a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow.