Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement last week that counties on the state's coronavirus "watchlist" had to tighten their restrictions gave whiplash to certain Santa Clara County businesses that had just reopened on July 13.
With 37 of California's 58 counties under monitoring, it also raised huge questions about what will happen when a county gets off the watchlist — questions that Santa Clara County health leaders so far are unable to answer.
Santa Clara County found itself on the state Department of Public Health watchlist for the second time last week after a rise in hospitalizations. Because it remained on the watchlist for more than three days, the county had to order hair and nail salons and other businesses to end their indoor operations on July 15.
As of Monday, July 20, the county was off the watchlist. On Wednesday, it was back on due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.
County health leaders were asked how they would decide to reopen businesses, given the on-again-off-again nature of being on the watchlist, but they refused to answer repeated inquiries.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he has no illusions about what the county will be charged with doing in the weeks and months ahead, nor what the pain to communities, schools and businesses will be.
"It has been clear from the outset of the pandemic that we are going to have to work through all of this with an ever-changing set of circumstances," he said by phone on Wednesday. "All of us are looking for certainty" but the coronavirus is uncharted territory.
The government and the state have struggled with whether to take actions on a county-by-county basis, a state basis or a blend of both, he said.
"The watchlist is particularly unsettling," he said.
Santa Clara County has a low hospitalization rate compared to other areas of the state, so even a modest uptick equates to a significant percentage, which places the county back on the watchlist, he said.
"We're going to be whipsawed a bit by the state. Folks were told they can open nail and hair salons and fitness centers on Monday and then closed again on Wednesday. This whiplash works a terrible hardship on businesses," he said.
Judy Kleinberg, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, said the revolving door of health orders and the layers of state and county rulings are the source of great frustration for businesses and damaging to morale.
"Each business that has been able to open in a limited way has made commitments to workers and made financial outlays to accommodate the health restrictions, and then their plans have been abruptly changed. The tolerance for these abrupt changes is wearing thin with really no one to blame," she said.
"The 'we're all in this together' mantra is barely resonating at this point when some businesses are open, even partially, or are out on the street, and others are open, then closed, then open outside — and others aren't allowed to open at all," she said in an email.
While Santa Clara County is on the watchlist, San Mateo County is not, which also presents challenges.
"If there is any confusion, it's that neighboring counties have different rules, which undercuts confidence in the reasoning for backtracking on the reopening," she said. "We started with a coordinated response of all seven counties, and all businesses were in the same boat and the messaging was consistent. Now there are mixed messages and businesses can't function without certainty and a modicum of predictability," she said.
Kleinberg favors regional decisions rather than county-by-county ones.
"I would re-establish the regional approach to have all Bay Area counties following the same rules and same timeline," Kleinberg said. "The difference from one county to another in terms of the watchlist is only due to the existence of political boundaries. That's just not how the Bay area functions socially or economically."
Simitian believes it's important for the state and counties to pick a set of metrics and stick with them.
"There is going to be this continual tension between economic activity and protecting people's health. Asking public health officers to thread that needle is going to take a lot of care."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.