- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2020

SAN DIEGO (AP) — California’s second-most populous county on Tuesday decided to ask the state to let it welcome back restaurant dining and in-store shopping with restrictions and to become a test case in reopening everything from gyms to apartment swimming pools.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ask to move deeper into phase two of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-stage reopening plan. That will allow businesses to go beyond the takeout and curbside-retail service allowed now.

The vote came a day after the governor made it easier for the state’s 58 counties to reopen more businesses, saying COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide have declined.

County health officials said the county of 3.3 million meets most of the new requirements and authorities credit swift moves to close beaches and ramp up hospital capacity, along with having a population that has followed the rules.

As such, authorities say, San Diego County has been a model for California and should be rewarded by being allowed to jump ahead and reopen more sectors of the economy.

Supervisors approved asking the state to use the county as a test case for a more rapid reopening plan that would allow everything from condo swimming pools to fitness facilities to reopen with restrictions. It also wants to bring back youth sports and outdoor religious services.

One supervisor voted for loosening restaurant and retail restrictions but against asking for the pilot program. Nathan Fletcher said while he understands the financial pain and pressure to restart the economy, it is too soon to jump to stage three without taking a week or so to monitor how it goes with diners in restaurants and shoppers in stores.

Fletcher said, “doing this in a thoughtful and methodical way is best.”

The governor has made it clear that no county can move into stage three, but he also has given no timeline of when that would occur.

San Diego County is “uniquely qualified” for the pilot program because of the way it managed the spread of the virus among its own population while also taking in cruise ship passengers and U.S. citizens flown on government-commissioned planes in February from China who were quarantined at Miramar Marine Air Station, the county’s chief administrator Helen Robbins Meyer told the board at Tuesday’s meeting.

She added that they ran the idea by state officials and though “they did not embrace it fully, they indicated a willingness to at least review our proposal.”

Earlier this month three mainly rural Northern California counties with few coronavirus cases defied Newsom’s stay-at-home order and allowed the reopening of salons and restaurant dining, but San Diego County officials say they won’t go that route. They point to the widespread compliance the county has seen after reopening its beaches and parks during the past three weeks, in contrast to neighboring Orange County, where the governor briefly re-closed beaches after seeing photos of hordes of people sitting on the sand. Beaches there reopened there days later after more restrictions were put into place.

“Everything that we are doing in San Diego County has been based on data, has been based on health,” San Diego Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer said.

Newsom has begun relaxing restrictions enacted under his stay-at-home order that shuttered all but essential businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus. With millions of people out of work, pressure to reopen has been building but the state has been cautious, afraid that moving too quickly could spark a second COVID-19 outbreak that could prove even more devastating to the economy.

Guidelines laid out just over a week ago to allow counties to move more quickly than the state in reopening still would have prevented most large counties from further rolling back business closures.

On Monday, Newsom further eased guidelines for exceptions, citing an overall statewide decline in hospitalizations in the last two weeks, the distribution of more protective gear for healthcare workers and the state’s ability to test more people for the virus.

He issued new guidelines for reopening, including a requirement that a county can’t have any new virus-related deaths in a two-week period was dropped. Instead, the criteria concentrate on the number of cases - no more than 25 per 100,000 residents - and other factors.

San Diego County is asking to jump ahead despite the fact that its cases continue to grow and it has 178 cases per 100,000 residents.

The county, however, meets the state requirement of a positive test rate of less than 8 percent, registering a rate Monday of 3.2 percent, public health director Dr. Wilma Wooten said. Counties are given the option to meet either one of those requirements, not both.

San Diego County, with about 3.3 million people, has had about 6,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 200 deaths.

Newsom didn’t identify the five counties he expected wouldn’t meet the criteria for accelerating business reopening, but he pointed to Los Angeles, Kings and Tulare County as those facing challenges. He cited Tulare due to a number of cases at nursing homes and Kings due to cases at meat packing plants.

Twenty-four counties in mostly rural Northern California already won approval under the old guidance.

Most counties already have said they are considering or are ready to reopen businesses faster. Some exceptions are in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County.

San Diego last week joined three other large Southern California counties - Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside - that sent a letter to Newsom asking to discuss what they saw as overly restrictive requirements for reopening.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.


Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Orange County, Robert Jablon, John Antczak, Brian Melley and Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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