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Health and Medicine

Some Rural California Counties Explore Making Their Own COVID-19 Rules

Downtown Redding in Shasta County, taken in 2008.
J. Stephen Conn/Flickr
Downtown Redding in Shasta County

Shasta County is among the rural Northern California counties that have sought changes to state coronavirus mandates to accommodate local circumstances.

El Dorado County was one of the first to consider asserting more local power over pandemic-related policies at the advice of some state lawmakers.

This week, at the county’s Board of Supervisors meeting, elected officials considered a resolution pushing for more flexibility for the county to respond to its own needs, rather than heed statewide mandates and guidelines.

“We can do a better job of determining our own self future,” said Supervisor John Hidahl, who brought the resolution to the Board. He takes issue with the current statewide system that places every county in one of four tiers based on the local case and positivity rates.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday several changes to the state’s tiered reopening system, including moving 40 counties back to more restrictive tiers and tightening rules on mask-wearing in public. El Dorado County slid back two tiers to the most restrictive.

Hidahl and others say this “one-size-fits-all” approach fails to recognize the regional realities, particularly in rural parts of the state, where people are more dispersed. Smaller populations also mean that just a few positive COVID-19 cases can skew metrics, pushing rural counties more easily into more restrictive tiers.

UC Berkeley epidemiologist Dr. John Swartzberg said he understands the frustration with the statewide system, particularly in rural counties, but sees benefits to a coordinated, statewide approach.

“This falls into the category of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Swartzberg said. “We can't get a perfect system.”

The El Dorado County resolution, which did not pass, grew out of an effort from Northern California state lawmakers to explore strategies to regain localized control over pandemic-related policies, which some say has largely been dictated by the governor without regard for regional needs.

Five Republican representatives organized an in-person conference in late October to bring together representatives from several counties to address that issue. County representatives attended the half-day long conference in Red Bluff on Oct. 29. At the conference, they drafted a template resolution to put before local boards. Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R–Granite Bay) was among the organizers.

“The state is taken upon itself to dictate the reality of life in a state of 40 million people, and it's taken important decisions out of the hands of counties or other municipalities,” Kiley said. He and Assemblymember James Gallagher (R–Yuba City) have also sued Governor Gavin Newsom, arguing certain executive orders violate California’s constitution.

Kiley, Senator Brian Dahle (R–Bieber) and others insist that statewide measures have failed to account for the reality of living in rural California, and see this coalition as a way to push back.

“At the end of the day, we want our people to be able to have some say in their destination [sic],” State Senator Brian Dahle said.

Supervisors in Riverside and Orange counties have raised similar concerns. In October, Shasta County looked into leaving the statewide tier system altogether. County officials did convince the state to allow the county to move into a less restrictive tier after significant pushback from the community.

Several supervisors raised concerns over adequate county resources and the potential public health consequences. Dr. Nancy Williams, the El Dorado County health officer, expressed concern over a more localized approach to managing the pandemic, when people regularly move between counties to work and shop for groceries, potentially carrying the virus with them.

“A lot of people in our county … do a lot of interaction in the Sacramento metro area, which is different rates down there,” she said. The county also encompasses the Lake Tahoe area, which abuts Douglas and Washoe counties in Nevada, where rates are much higher.

If anything, Williams said she supports more regional planning, as opposed to a county-by-county approach. “Everybody really is trying to toe the line and do the best thing for our people,” Williams said. “We're trying to find the best middle ground here.”

El Dorado did not approve the resolution for more autonomy on Tuesday, but the board did agree to bring a revised version to its next meeting in December. Still, it’s unclear if such local measures would be more than symbolic.

Swartzberg, the UC Berkeley professor, noted that the virus does not respect borders and boundaries. He warns that debates over local or statewide decision-making pale in comparison to the rapidly rising case numbers across California, and the country. The debates over representation and regional needs fall against the backdrop of a rapidly accelerating crisis, he said.

Supervisor Ed Valenzuela of Siskiyou County said the rising case counts have changed his perspective. As the chair of the rural caucus at the California State Association of Counties, Valenzuela has participated in weekly calls with the state’s top health official Dr. Mark Ghaly.

Until recently, Valenzuela wanted to make clear the profound economic consequences of policies designed to protect public health.

“Until this past week, the message for the rural counties was: in small communities, social distancing was already the norm [even if that] wasn't the term that people use,” Valenzuela said. The virus had yet to plague counties like his, but the economic impact was clear and dire from the outset.

But the rising case counts across the state have Valenzuela concerned and focused on controlling the spread as much as finding relief for local businesses, which he says needs to come from state and federal governments.

“For me it’s kind of gone by the wayside, because now it is a pandemic issue, as well as an economic issue, and how do we work through all that,” he said.

That concern is justified, Swartzberg said. Regardless of whether county or state officials make public health decisions, the situation grows more dire by the day — and the upcoming holidays compounded with record-breaking case numbers deeply concern him.

“These events that are upcoming like Thanksgiving and Christmas, are on top of an already accelerating pandemic,” Swartzberg said. “That's a very dangerous position to be in. I don't think the American public understands how dangerous things really are.”

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