Kern County will likely be required to dial back its reopening this weekend, earning a brief reprieve from expanded business restrictions that prohibit indoor activity at certain businesses in more than two dozen other counties.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, announced that some 30 counties now on a state watchlist must cease indoor activity at churches and other houses of worship, malls, hair salons and barbershops, gyms, non-critical offices and other personal service providers.
Kern recently came off the state watchlist after sufficiently meeting state metrics for disease spread and hospital preparedness for the first time in weeks. However state officials informed local officials the county is on track to be back on the watchlist by week’s end, said Supervisor Mike Maggard.
To add to the confusion, Kern was initially included in the list of counties immediately subject to the new order, causing the governor to issue a tweet afterward stating Kern was “not yet” subject to the orders.
Maggard said county officials, faced with reality that the restrictions would eventually come to Kern, considered implementing the orders immediately.
“But the overwhelming conclusion was these are people's businesses and lives and jobs and they deserve as much time as possible to land the crash landing that is before them,” said Maggard, who along with Supervisor Zack Scrivener spear-headed a committee to speed up reopening locally. “It's the moral, ethical thing to do to give them a shot. People have bought materials, food, they have employees coming into work, they have appointments scheduled ... it's a terrible dilemma for businesses.”
Maggard said the state always exacts more of a cost from businesses to get the desired results even if the problem is really the unwillingness of people to comply with social distancing, not gathering and wearing masks. Kern's lead epidemiologist Kim Hernandez recently said that contact tracing has shown people in Kern continue spreading the virus by gathering with family and friends.
"The businesses have to pay the price for that and I think that's terribly unfair," Maggard said.
John Ovanessian, owner of the local fitness chain Body Xchange, couldn’t agree more. Though he later learned businesses in Kern weren't impacted by the new orders right away, he said too much of the economic costs of the shutdowns are being born by small businesses.
“It affects us like crazy,” he said, adding that gyms have some of the highest overhead costs for the least amount of gross income. Most businesses with large buildings — 20,000 to 30,000 square feet — are retail and generate income through daily sales, he said, whereas fitness facilities rely on monthly membership dues.
The company obtained a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, he said, but it's mostly geared toward paying employees and not other things that can help keep the company afloat, like rent or utility bills.
“It’s going to get worse,” he said of the economic ripple effects of forcing businesses to close. “It’s just a nightmare.”
Newsom emphasized in his Monday announcement that the virus isn't going away "anytime soon."
"I hope all of us recognize that if we were still connected to some notion that somehow when it gets warm it will go away, or somehow it's going to take summer months or weekends off, this virus has done neither," he said.
Newsom referred to the expanded restrictions Monday as part of the "dimmer switch" being used to modify reopenings statewide as the virus has continued spreading in recent weeks to new highs. He also announced an extension of bar, zoo and museum closures, and indoor dining at restaurants statewide. Those restrictions are already in place locally.
The governor emphasized the new restricted business activities could continue taking place outside but in Kern County, and much of the San Joaquin Valley, that seems unlikely with temperatures in the triple digits.
"Where am I going to go, in a parking lot?" asked Body Change owner Ovanessian.
Given summertime conditions in the region, Maggard said it feels like an unfair application of the law, one he anticipates will be legally challenged though he said there was not talk of the county mounting a challenge at this time.
"It's no big deal for outside assembly to occur on the coast when it's 70 degrees but vast areas of the San Joaquin Valley are too hot," he said.
Maggard added some people will likely find ways to operate their businesses outside, and that churches will likely hold early morning or evening services outside "out of necessity."