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County Supervisors Nix Proposal To Fully Open Businesses Amid Pandemic

Outdoor dining in Kearney Mesa on July 15, 2020. The city allowed restaurants...

Photo by KPBS Staff

Above: Outdoor dining in Kearney Mesa on July 15, 2020. The city allowed restaurants and retailers to expand into sidewalks and parking lots during the coronavirus pandemic.

County supervisors Tuesday nixed a board member's proposal to fully open up businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Instead, the board voted to meet at 3 p.m. next Tuesday to discuss related issues, including the county's role on a state task force that is focusing on the pandemic. Helen Robbins-Meyer, the county's chief administrative officer, is a member.

The county will also send a letter to the state requesting that the COVID-19 outbreak at San Diego State University not be included in the overall case numbers.

On Tuesday, SDSU reported a total of 676 student cases since the fall semester began Aug. 24.

Supervisor Jim Desmond made a motion to end county enforcement of what businesses should be open or closed — bars would be an exception — but continue enforcement of health and safety protocols.

"It's time for us to take that local control — to stay safe, and be open for business," Desmond said.

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Desmond stressed that he has no problem with county staff, who are doing "a fantastic job" dealing with the pandemic. "My wish is that (Gov. Gavin) Newsom would give us local control," he said.

Desmond's motion came after an update on county case numbers and the state's new four-tier color-coded system.

San Diego County now sits in the red tier, along with Orange, San Francisco, Marin, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. Most of the rest of Southern California is in the most restrictive purple tier.

County public health officials reported 294 new COVID-19 infections and nine additional fatalities late Tuesday afternoon, bringing the cumulative caseload to 43,181 and death toll to 742.

"There is no path to economic recovery without slowing the spread of COVID-19," said Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county's public health officer.

Desmond, who is also board vice chairman, has been a strong critic of lockdown efforts.

Earlier Tuesday on Twitter, he encouraged business owners to call into the meeting as a show of support. That brought a sharp rebuke from Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who tweeted that Desmond's actions were "reckless and irresponsible."

During the meeting, Fletcher said he understands that people are struggling, "but the way we get out of this is not acting like it's not there. We get out of us is by slowing the spread, and start making wise decisions that will allow us to restart."

Desmond's motion "would have made matters much worse ...," he said. "We are shouldered with the responsibility to make decisions that may not be popular. If we want more businesses to open, we have a path before us. I urge us to exercise caution."

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar proposed holding the meeting next Tuesday. Gaspar said that while she appreciates Desmond's motion, she believes there's a better way, using new and comprehensive information, in the form of a coalition.

As a small business owner herself, Gaspar said she'll continue to be a champion for that community.

"This pandemic is a massive health crisis and an economic one," Gaspar said. "I don't believe that protecting public health and opening the economy should be mutually exclusive."

California is "too big for a `one size fits all' approach," Gaspar added. "We've done everything asked of us. San Diego won't tolerate a third shutdown, and neither will I."

By having a role on the state's task force, the county can better articulate how it's managing the pandemic, said Gaspar, who added that she's optimistic the governor's office is listening to the county's concerns.

In terms of case numbers, the county has been "trending in the right direction, but the margin is razor-thin," Gaspar said. The SDSU case spike "exposes a fatal flaw, and we're at risk for moving back in the purple tier," she said.

Desmond later said that he was "disappointed by my colleagues"' vote to continue to enforce business closures, rather than safe reopenings.

"There is a new crisis — and it's now economic," he said. "The April lockdown continues indefinitely, with 200,000 San Diegans unemployed and $5 billion in lost wages for the region's workforce."

Before the supervisors voted, they heard from nearly 60 members of the public during the hearing, in which nearly every caller asked the county to fully reopen businesses.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said that while she appreciates the speakers' perspective, the county has to consider the entire population, and has an obligation to safety.

"We're in a very difficult situation," Jacob said. "I called early on for more local control."

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