UPDATE: After an initial setback, Santa Clara County received the go-ahead from the state on July 6 for its plan to reopen the economy and allow hair salons and gyms to resume operations on July 13. Read more here.
Marking a new phase in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Clara County leaders issued an order Thursday that could allow hair salons and gyms to reopen in mid-July and that will require all businesses to strictly follow a new set of rules to ensure social distancing.
The order comes at a time when the county, much like the state at large, is seeing a steady rise in coronavirus cases. The county reported 185 new cases on Thursday and one new death, raising the total death count to 159. The increased number of hospitalizations has prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to include Santa Clara County on the state's "monitoring list" of 19 counties with troubling trend lines.
Sara Cody, the county's health officer, said the order recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic will not go away any time soon. And while it could allow new business sectors to reopen on July 13, pending the state's permission, it also creates new safety requirements for all businesses.
Under the new guidelines, businesses must continue to allow employees to telework where feasible and to move as many operations as possible outdoors. They will have to fill out and submit to the county their social-distancing protocols. They also will be required to follow density limits, with no more than one employee per 250 gross square feet of the facility and no more than one customer per 150 square feet of the space that is open to the public.
Employees who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to immediately alert the business, which would have to report it to the Public Health Department.
In introducing the measures, Cody noted that the county has seen the number of COVID-19 cases rise in recent weeks. While the county has significantly increased its testing, the numbers reflect a "true increase in the prevalence of COVID-19" — not a mere rise in detected cases resulting from more testing.
"We're at an inflection point," Cody said. "We're at a point in this pandemic where it's crystal clear that COVID-19 will be with us for a long time. So we need to adapt to a new way of being, a new way of living, that keeps us all safe and that allows us to do things that we miss and that we cherish and that we find more meaningful."
County leaders also noted that some businesses won't be able to follow the new protocols and, as such, will not reopen any time in the near future. This includes indoor dining and indoor swimming and other indoor activities in which always keeping a mask on is infeasible, county Counsel James Williams said. These activities have been shut down in Santa Clara County since March 17, when the county's first shelter-in-place order took effect.
Rather than providing guidance for particular business sectors, the order seeks to "set a new normal for what we can expect when we enter any business facility or engage in any kind of activity," Williams said.
He also noted that businesses that promote close or large gatherings, including nightclubs, stadiums, concert venues and arenas, will remain closed.
"All activities that cannot be done with social distancing are prohibited," Williams said.
The Thursday order requires approval from the state, Williams said. If this approval is granted, hair salons, nail salons, gyms and other activities that can safely accommodate small gatherings and follow the county protocols would be allowed to reopen as soon as July 13. If the state grants the waiver after that date, these businesses would reopen at that time.
County Supervisor Mike Wasserman said he is hopeful that Newsom and his team will "recognize all the work that the people and businesses of Santa Clara County have done to reopen our remaining businesses and approve our request." The order, he said, allows additional activities to resume while setting standards to keep the community safe.
"Our businesses need to be adaptable and flexible to comply with these important new safety measures," Wasserman said. "I'm confident they will be."
Cody said the Thursday order marks the end of a "phased reopening" that has characterized the county's response since March and the beginning of "a new stage that we believe will be stable for some time." She noted that even with the recent increase in cases and state's decision to include Santa Clara County on its monitoring list (in recognition of a growing rate of hospitalizations), Santa Clara County still has fewer cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents than any other Bay Area county and any major urban area in the state.
"We need to conduct our lives a bit differently because we're in it for the long haul," Cody said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.