More than two dozen California counties have asked for permission to loosen their stay-at-home orders beyond what the state allows, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday, promising a speedy review of their requests as jobs continue disappearing by the millions in a coronavirus-induced economic downturn.
Newsom relaxed some statewide restrictions last week by allowing curbside pickup at most retail stores and giving manufacturers the OK to resume with some limits. He’s promised to release guidelines on Tuesday for the return of dine-in restaurants.
But many rural counties with few coronavirus cases are eager to jump ahead of Newsom to get started on recovering from a statewide stay-at-home order that has been in place for nearly two months.
Other counties are more cautious, prompting a dispute between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Alameda County leaders on Monday when the billionaire businessman reopened his plant in Fremont in defiance of local health orders.
The two extremes show the balance Newsom must strike as he tries to lead the nation’s most populous state through a pandemic that has crippled what had been a roaring economy. Newsom said Monday more than 4.5 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, contributing to a projected $54.3 billion budget deficit.
On Monday, Newsom and leaders from four other western states signed a letter asking Congress for $1 trillion in aid. Meanwhile, California cities have asked the state Legislature for $7 billion in funding to cover a projected statewide shortfall in local government budgets.
The deficits are creating pressure for the state to open the economy faster. The state will allow counties to go beyond the state’s plan, but only if they meet strict standards that include no coronavirus-related deaths and no more than one confirmed case per 10,000 residents in the past two weeks.
Newsom said Monday his administration has discussed plans with 19 counties, with nine others scheduled. Some could have their plans approved by Tuesday. But it’s been difficult for some more populated counties to meet those state standards.
In Kern County, which has nearly 1 million residents spread out over 8,000 square miles (20,700 square kilometers), local officials say they can’t met the requirements on deaths and infections because of an outbreak at a skilled nursing facility that has accounted for 60% of the county’s deaths. The 184-bed facility now has more than 100 confirmed cases, according The Bakersfield Californian.
“Is it fair to judge them based upon what’s going on in this one facility?” Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard asked.
Newsom left open the possibility, answering a question during his Monday news conference by saying “We’re open to argument, interested in evidence.”
“There is a lot of really interesting nuance within these large counties and that obviously needs to be taken into account.” he said.
San Luis Obispo County, which stretches along the Central Coast north of Los Angeles, meets the infection requirements if it only counts new cases that are “community or travel-related.” It doesn’t meet the requirements if it includes cases with a “known source or household contact,” which includes 10 cases at the California Men’s Colony prison.
“All of this is sort of uncharted territory for all of us,” said Michelle Shoresman, spokeswoman for the county’s health officials.
Yuba and Sutter counties in Northern California easily meet those standards but have defied the governor by allowing dine-in restaurants, hair salons and gyms to reopen. Last week, the Newsom administration warned the counties they could forfeit federal disaster dollars if they keep ignoring the governor’s order.
But Monday, the Democratic governor called the two counties “incredibly cooperative” and said “we’re having some very good conversations.” He predicted that they will “be able to work through a lot of the differences we may have.”
Newsom also sought to broker a peace between Tesla, which employs 10,000 people. In a series of tweets over the weekend, Musk threatened to move the company to another state. Newsom said he has “great expectations” that county leaders can work it out with Musk and said “we look forward to many, many decades of that relationship.”
California has more than 68,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 2,700 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because of a shortage of testing.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Associated Press writer Don Thompson contributed.