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'A major step forward': Riverside County approved for accelerated reopening

The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) logo The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) 5/23/2020 Risa Johnson, Melissa Daniels, Brian Blueskye and Sherry Barkas, Palm Springs Desert Sun

Riverside County has received approval from the state for accelerated reopening, Board of Supervisors Chair V. Manuel Perez announced at a press conference on Friday. 

This means restaurants can now open for dine-in service, and venues such as shopping malls, strip malls and swap meets are allowed to reopen, Perez said. It's the second phase in the second stage of California's reopening plan. 

"This is a huge success for counties and for local businesses," Perez said. 

Many local businesses that have struggled financially during the closure now will be able to get customers back. But county officials urged owners and operators to have public health protocols in place. While the county won’t enforce guidelines regarding face masks or installing face shields, those precautions are encouraged.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez wears a face mask to slow the spread of coronavirus at a Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 in Riverside, Calif. © Vickie Connor/The Desert Sun Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez wears a face mask to slow the spread of coronavirus at a Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 in Riverside, Calif.

Juan Perez, who is the assistant CEO of Riverside County, said the county has issued sector-specific guidelines meant to supplement those already in place by the state. He encouraged businesses to publicize reopening plans. 

“Where we are today is really a major step forward,” he said.

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For restaurateurs like Lee Morcus, who owns several dining establishments in the valley, the ability to reopen for eat-in customers is welcome news.

“I'm thrilled. I'm excited. It's an important first step," Morcus said. "We knew it was coming and it's positive news. Anything that helps us get back to normal is great news.” 

Morcus has temporarily closed restaurants including Kaiser Grill in Palm Springs, in part, because of a lack of tourists at nearby hotels and almost no foot traffic in downtown. And while he's glad for the go-ahead, he's in no rush to reopen.  

“We're going to reopen when we're ready," he said. "Many people are ready to open now. I'm not convinced this is the right time to reopen. I want to take a wait-and-see attitude.” 

The announcement came after Dr. Geoffrey Leung with the Riverside University Health System shared graphs, including one showing hospitalizations in the county and another showing percentage change over time using a seven-day average.

"Our hospitalizations related to coronavirus have not been going up, and that's very good news," Leung said. "That is a good measure for the health of our hospitals in Riverside County." 

Currently, 194 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 64 in intensive care. That's an increase of 11 hospitalizations since Thursday. Additionally, officials said 4,180 people have recovered in the county, which is 164 more patients than Thursday. 

Leung also displayed a graph showing the COVID-19 positivity rate in the county from May 6 to May 18. 

The county's recent change rate is roughly in the 2% to 4% range, which Leung said is "very good." 

Riverside County health officials on Friday reported 121 new COVID-19 cases and six additional virus-related deaths, including the first fatality in Desert Hot Springs. A total of 290 people have died in the county since the pandemic began.

The county’s total number of confirmed cases is now 6,464, Its first case was reported on March 7. The group with the most confirmed cases — 2,034 — is made up of those who are between the ages of 40 and 64. The group with the most confirmed deaths — 144 — is made up of those who are between the ages of 65 to 84.

Leung reminded the public that all are encouraged to get tested for COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, or their age. Leung said testing is key because it helps to identify and contain infections, protect vulnerable populations, and also to reopen the county safely. 

County officials also announced three new walk-up testing locations would open next week in Corona, San Jacinto and Temecula. Testing at Corona Senior Citizens Center, located at 921 S. Belle Ave. in Corona, and 790 S. State St. in San Jacinto starts Tuesday and will run Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A testing site previously at the Mead Valley Community Center will move to the Grace Mellman Library at 41-000 County Center Drive in Temecula. Testing starts Tuesday and will continue Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For a complete list of testing locations and information about how to make an appointment, go to rivcoph.org/coronavirus/testing.

Riverside County is outpacing California's overall testing rate with about 3,886 total tests administered per 100,000 residents to date. In total, the county and private labs within the county have done 95,977 tests. Statewide, about 3,596 total tests per 100,000 people have been conducted, as of Friday.

"We are especially in need of doing more testing for our children and school-aged residents," Leung said. "That will help us prepare better for the coming school year and let us know where we are on that evolution of coronavirus." 

The approval also allows counties to reopen schools without modifications. However, there is still a local health order for primary schools, grades K-12, to remain closed through June 19, according to a news release sent by the county. 

Second District Supervisor Karen Spiegel said that people “can start living instead of being so afraid” now that the county will be able to open up more establishments. She said that the county’s hospital beds are only about 5% used up by coronavirus patients, representing “only a fraction of our population.” 

“We need to continue living and moving forward,” she said. “The path to reopening our economy with proper health and safety measures … is critical.” 

Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors said he was "really thrilled that the county has met the benchmarks to move into the rest of Phase 2. It’s a testament to our residents and businesses doing such a great job in following the rules and flattening the curve.”

But Kors noted he wants to make sure that as more businesses reopen, it is done safely. 

“The last thing we want is to see the resurgence that takes us backwards, but I’m confident our residents and businesses will do this in a safe and smart way, and as we have done throughout the work to educate them and provide them with the guidelines on how to do that," Kors said.

La Quinta Mayor Linda Evans was excited by the news.

“La Quinta has pushed to help lead this effort and will continue to support the county," Evans said. 

The city has been working with its businesses to help them prepare to reopen and meet all the necessary guidelines.

“We want to ensure a safe reopening for businesses and residents and will adhere to all guidelines,” Evans said, reminding all to practice safe-distancing and wear face coverings where required. 

Evans also encouraged everyone to get tested for coronavirus, because that will help advance the county to Stage 3, which will see more businesses reopen, including offices and hair salons.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday relaxed some county reopening criteria — number of deaths and cases per 100,000 residents — saying he expects 53 of the state's 58 counties to receive approval to move into the second phase of Stage 2 reopening.

Counties now must have no more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week span or no higher than an 8% positive rate among people testing for the coronavirus to qualify. 

While Riverside County hadn't met the 25 cases per 100,000 residents benchmark  — the county's rate is still more than double that — Perez told The Desert Sun earlier this week that it has met the criteria for having "no higher than an 8% positive rate among people tested." The county's rate was 6.8%, Perez said. 

Additionally, Perez said Riverside County's hospitalizations had increased 3% over the previous week, which hit below the state's 5% metric.

Newsom's announcement followed a letter sent by a coalition of Southern California officials, including Perez, seeking consideration of criteria to make urban counties eligible for regional variances. More populous counties had failed to meet more rigorous criteria, including every county in Southern California, the Bay Area and all but one along the Central Coast.

To gain approval now, counties also need to have at least 15 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. That means Riverside County would need about 367 contact tracers in total.

Riverside County is in the process of hiring up to 200 contact tracers to expand the public health department’s resources. The county now has more than 100 contact tracers, with the most recent hires working remotely, said Brooke Federico, Riverside County spokeswoman. 

Riverside County currently has about four contact tracers per 100,000 residents, but is part of the state’s contact tracing software pilot program.

Additionally, counties must meet a minimum daily rate of 150 tests per 100,000 residents.

Coachella Valley: Cases so far 

County officials on Friday reported 34 new cases and three additional deaths in the Coachella Valley's nine cities. There have been a total of 1,138 COVID-19 cases and 51 deaths in the Coachella Valley's nine cities.

  • Cathedral City: 134 cases and 2 deaths 
  • Coachella: 242 cases and 3 deaths 
  • Desert Hot Springs: 68 cases and 1 death
  • Indian Wells: 13 cases and 0 deaths 
  • Indio: 255 cases and 5 deaths 
  • La Quinta: 104 cases and 9 deaths 
  • Palm Desert: 162 cases and 19 deaths 
  • Palm Springs: 127 cases and 9 deaths 
  • Rancho Mirage: 33 cases and 3 deaths 
  • Unincorporated communities: Bermuda Dunes: 6 cases and 0 deaths; Desert Edge: 4 cases and 0 deaths; Desert Palms: 8 cases and 0 deaths; Garnet: 18 cases and 0 deaths; Mecca: 45 cases and 3 deaths; North Shore: 16 cases and 0 deaths; Oasis: 39 cases and 0 deaths; Sky Valley: 2 cases and 0 deaths; Thermal: 16 cases and 0 deaths; Thousand Palms: 11 cases and 0 deaths; Vista Santa Rosa: 18 cases and 0 deaths
  • California: 88,444 positive cases and 3,630 deaths, according to data released on Friday

San Bernardino County reports 162 new coronavirus cases, 9 new deaths

San Bernardino County health officials on Thursday reported 162 new coronavirus cases and 9 additional virus-related deaths. A total of 173 people have died in the county due to COVID-19 complications since the pandemic began.

The county's total number of cases is now 4,146. 

So far, 47,909 individuals have been tested in the county, with 8.6% of those testing positive. The county reported the results of 1,624 tests on Thursday, which equates to about 74 tests reported per 100,000 residents on that day. 

Previous reporting by Desert Sun reporter Nicole Hayden was used in this report.

Risa Johnson covers Native American affairs in the Coachella Valley and beyond. She can be reached at risa.johnson@desertsun.com or (760) 778-4737. Follow her on Twitter @risamjohnson.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: 'A major step forward': Riverside County approved for accelerated reopening

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