A coalition of business leaders across Santa Clara County are calling on public health officials to loosen COVID-19 restrictions that they say have crippled local businesses for the last six months.
The group, made up of 15 chambers of commerce and dozens of elected officials and small businesses, is demanding that the county work with the business community to find ways to safely reopen sectors of the economy that have been closed or curtailed during the coronavirus pandemic. The coalition took particular aim at county restrictions that under new state guidelines can now be lifted but remain in effect, such as indoor dining.
At a virtual press conference Monday, Silicon Valley Organization President Matt Mahood said COVID-19 isn't expected to go away any time soon, but keeping a significant part of the economy shut down is not a solution. Small businesses and the working poor simply won't survive the crisis absent county action, Mahood said, and business owners are eager and willing to reopen in a way that is safe.
"At a minimum, the county must clearly communicate how we can find solutions to safely reopen, using evidence-based approaches to reduce the spread of COVID-19," he said.
Last month, California released a new framework for reopening the economy, introducing a color-coded tier system that dictates what activities are allowed. In the early days of the framework, Santa Clara County was initially placed in purple, the worst tier.
Santa Clara County has since been upgraded to the red tier, allowing for numerous businesses to start limited indoor activities, including restaurants, gyms, nail salons and personal care services. But county health officials have been reluctant to adopt all of the state's guidelines, and are still prohibiting all indoor dining.
In a virtual town hall on Sunday, County Executive Jeff Smith acknowledged that Santa Clara County is taking a more restrictive approach than required by the state, particularly its ban on indoor dining, movie theaters and indoor gatherings. The decision to rescind those rules is made by Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, he said, who has reviewed the scientific literature and determined that indoor dining and gatherings are still too risky.
Several business owners at the press conference insisted that indoor dining and other activities can safely resume if they are given the chance, and that proper ventilation, temperature checks, face masks and Plexiglas dividers can go a long way towards preventing the spread of the virus. Randy Musterer, owner of the company Sushi Confidential, said indoor dining has worked in other places without a significant increase in COVID-19 cases, and that businesses are so desperate to survive that some may go rogue and reopen in spite of county health orders.
"It's going to come down to putting food on the table for the family or filing for bankruptcy and losing everything," Musterer said. "Our restaurants, businesses and employees just want a fighting chance to survive."
Any indoor activity where people aren't wearing face masks -- as is the case in restaurants -- brings greater risk, county officials said in a press release Monday.
"A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control confirms that eating out is one of the riskiest activities for COVID-19 and according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, adults with COVID-19 are twice as likely to have dined out in the 14 days before becoming sick than those who tested negative," the statement said.
Jacqueline Tran, who owns the business Polished Salon in East San Jose, said the nail and hair salon industries have been hard hit by the public health restrictions and are struggling to survive. Many of the owners and workers are immigrants and are often the sole source of income for their households, yet they have had to face six months of closures during COVID-19. If the prohibitions continue, she urged the county to consider some type of financial relief.
"I really hope and urge the county to please find a plan to reopen safely, or find a plan to support those whose livelihoods are being destroyed," Tran said.
Peter Katz, president and CEO of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, said the stories are similar to what he has been hearing from businesses in Mountain View for months. He said it's been difficult to understand the inconsistencies between state and local public health orders, particularly when the business community isn't included when crafting public health guidelines.
"Our businesses are demonstrating a willingness to follow the rules," Katz said. "The challenge is that the rules keep changing, or that there are rules that seem to apply to one kind of business but not another."
Katz also advocated for some type of financial aid to businesses that will bear the brunt of the county's more restrictive public health order, many of which have "suffered immensely" over the last six months.
Elected officials from Gilroy and San Jose also made a pitch during the press conference for reopening businesses under the state's guidelines. San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis said cities and counties rely on a robust local economy for their revenue, and that getting people back to work is the only plausible path forward. Government funding to keep businesses afloat won't be enough, he said, particularly when faced with declining tax revenue.
"Government can't be all about saying 'No,' because there is no amount of government-run programs that will help the unemployed stay in their homes," Khamis said.