After an initial setback, Santa Clara County received the go-ahead from the state on Monday night for its plan to reopen the economy and allow hair salons and gyms to resume operations on July 13.
The variance attestation, which the state Department of Public Health posted on its website July 6, is a requirement for counties that want to reopen their economies more quickly than allowed under the state's shelter-in-place order. The variance will allow the county to move ahead with the health order that county Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody issued on Thursday, allowing hair salons, gyms and other businesses to reopen on July 13.
The July 2 order also includes a set of rules that all businesses must follow during the pandemic. These include allowing telework when possible, shifting operations outdoors and imposing density restrictions, with no more than one employee per 250 square feet of gross floor area.
The approval followed a weekend of confusion and disappointment, with the state informing the county on July 4 that it had not met all the "metrics" for readiness, a necessary prerequisite for receiving the state clearance. As such, the county's attestation was deemed incomplete and was not posted on the state Department of Public Health's website.
That changed on Monday night, however. According to the state department, the county submitted a complete attestation to the application and the attestation was posted on the site late in the day.
The state's earlier denial seemed to have caught just about all local and county officials by surprise, given that it was the first instance since the shutdown took effect on March 17 in which the state explicitly rejected an order from the county's health officer. While county officials acknowledged last week that the order would require approval from the state, they expressed optimism that the approval would be forthcoming.
Cody said at a Tuesday news briefing that the county has worked "closely with the California Department of Public Health over the weekend to make sure we met the metrics and met the criteria, and ultimately we were approved."
The state's approval of the attestation also creates some clarity for restaurant owners, in Palo Alto and elsewhere, who have been expanding outdoor dining by setting up tables in newly built parklets and recently closed thoroughfares. As part of its "Summer Streets" program, Palo Alto has recently closed California and University avenues to traffic to promote outdoor dining.
While serving meals outside was consistent with the county's June 5 order, which allows such an activity, it clashed with the state's shelter-in-place order, which does not. Because the county had not received a state variance before Monday night, it was not technically allowed to move ahead with indoor or outdoor dining, according to state officials.
County leaders had argued that because the state had not explicitly banned outdoor dining, and because other parts of the state have been allowing outdoor dining without seeking variances, they had assumed such a variance was not needed.
The issue didn't surface until last weekend, when agents from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control visited several businesses in Gilroy and Morgan Hill to tell them that outdoor dining is not allowed, according to a report from The Mercury News. On Monday, Santa Clara County Deputy County Executive David Campos said that the direction from the state on outdoor dining created confusion for some businesses.
"What we want them to know is, as far as the County of Santa Clara is concerned, we believe that outdoor dining is allowed under our order and that is consistent with the state order," Campos said Monday, before the state officially approved the county's attestation.
On Tuesday, with the state's approval at hand, Campos said the county is "grateful to the governor and the state for working with us and getting us to this point."
Cody also confirmed Tuesday that the state's approval on Monday night allows the outdoor-dining programs to remain in effect.
"If we want to continue outdoor dining, with this variance we can continue to allow outdoor dining as well as some other sectors and activities," Cody said. "We can enable them to come online."
The new order, which is now set to take effect on July 13, as originally scheduled, represents a shift toward "risk-reduction thinking," Cody said. Rather than focusing on specific business sectors, the order provides a set of universal rules and principles for all businesses to follow. These include shifting operations to outdoor space, requiring physical distancing and limiting the duration of contacts between people.
The order underscores the existing requirement for always wearing a face covering when indoors in a place of business. And it prohibits businesses and activities where adhering to these principles is not feasible, including indoor dining and swimming, concerts and nightclubs.
"We know that this pandemic has been with us for a while. We know this pandemic will be with us for a while longer," Cody said Tuesday. "And at the end of the day, Mother Nature is in charge and we must adapt."
County Executive Jeff Smith emphasized that the state's decision to grant the variance does not mean that the county is doing better in regard to COVID-19. The situation, he said, is in fact getting worse.
"The reason we have applied for the variance is because we realized that the success of dealing with the virus in the long-term depends on individual responsibility, not based on sectors that are open," Smith said. "Rather than having a focus on which businesses are open and having a focus on asking businesses to enforce distancing, this order focuses on personal responsibility."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.