COVID orders confusing for commerce

Business community struggles to answer the question of whether they are mandated to close or allowed to be open

By Reggie Ellis

TULARE COUNTY – In the midst of the confusion swirling around coronavirus, the question, “What should we do in this time of crisis?” is less of a rhetorical reflection and more of a request for clarification.

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his executive order for Californians to “shelter in place,” residents normally concerned with the reason for the order are much more focused on how to react and the inherent contradictions in the guidelines depending on the hat they are wearing as parent, employee or employer.

The rules for personal activity are quite simple: Stay at home as much as possible, limit unnecessary trips outside the home, practice social distancing with everyone except those living in your home, avoid touching hard surfaces outside your home and wash your hands after every activity. The Gov. even said it is OK to go to the park or walk your dog, just don’t do it in groups that aren’t your immediate family.

The rules for businesses are much more complicated and involve the advice of two agencies, the California Department of Public Health and the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency’s Public Health branch. Both sets of rules apply concurrently and businesses are asked to follow whichever is the more restrictive of the two.

When Gov. Newsom issued his executive order on March 19 for Californians to shelter in place, the State’s Public Health Officer issued a list of jobs designated as “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” to keeping residents safe and healthy. These jobs included:

  • Healthcare workers: Doctors, nurses, caregivers, social workers, lab technicians, pharmacists, mental health counselors, and any other staff supporting services at a hospital, clinic, doctor’s office and county health systems.
  • Emergency services: First responders including police, fire, EMT, hazardous materials, public safety contractors, animal control and social workers responding to crimes; as well as public works employees including those related to dams, locks and levees, bridges, utilities, traffic control, water and sewer systems, fleet maintenance, plumbers, electricians, exterminators, road maintenance, waste pick up and disposal.
  • Food and Agriculture: Grocers, pharmacies, convenience stores, retail that sells food and beverage, food manufacturing and processing, farm workers and ranch hands, delivery drivers and truck drivers, cafeteria workers, cannabis sales, dietary supplements, crop inspectors, veterinarians and loggers.
  • Energy: Transmission linemen, call centers, engineers, information technology workers, tree trimmers, control technicians, pipeline workers, marine transport, refineries, roughnecks, gas stations and truck stops, propane tank maintenance and repair and propane distribution centers.
  • Water and Wastewater: Water authority agencies, community water systems, wastewater treatment facilities, chemical suppliers and digital support systems.
  • Transportation and Logistics: Mass transit workers, taxis, rideshare, port workers, mariners, manufacturers of packaging, pallets, crates and containers, postal and shipping, mechanics for automotive, aviation, nautical and rail, truck drivers, dispatchers, warehouse workers, rest stops, cold storage, air traffic controllers, aviation security, flight crews, etc.
  • Communications and Information Technology: Radio, TV, newspapers reporters, engineers and technicians, data centers, Internet exchange points, cable providers, wireless providers, satellite operators, customer service staff, dispatchers, HVAC, security, database administrators, field engineers and technicians and cyber crime investigators and services.
  • Critical Manufacturing: Workers who make materials for all of the above.
  • Hazardous Materials: Workers at nuclear facilities, medical waste management, laboratories processing testing kits and hazmat response and cleanup.
  • Financial Services: Financial transactional services such as payments, clearing, settlement, insurance and capital market activities, ATM servicers and armored cash carriers.
  • Chemical: Chemical and industrial supply chains for chemicals, factory workers for making hand sanitizers, food and food additives, pharmaceuticals, textiles and paper products, protective cleaning products and personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, workers who support the production and transportation of chlorine, alkaline, single-use plastics and glass containers.
  • Defense Industrial Base: Military personnel and defense contractors.
  • Other: Critical government workers, courts, building supers and security, weather forecasters, credentialing, vetting and licensing for transportation workers, workers who provide distance learning, school meals or daycare facilities for educational institutions or any essential sectors.

Not in session

Just because things are on the list doesn’t mean they are still operating. On March 23, Tulare County Superior Court announced it would be closed to the public through April 16. Criminal hearings are still going on but jury trials have been suspended through May 11. The courts also issued a 30-day extension of time to file an answer or response to litigation. If you need to complete legal paperwork, you can get forms and information at www.courts.ca.gov. Court filings can be done by mailing to 221 S. Mooney Blvd., Room 201, Visalia, California 93291, for north county filings and 300 E. Olive Avenue, Porterville, California, 93257 for south county filings. Traffic fines can be paid online at www.tularesuperiorcourt.ca.gov, mailed to 221 S. Mooney Blvd., Room 124 Visalia, California 93291 or via drop box located at Room 124 on the first floor of the Visalia courthouse or exterior window 2 t the South County Justice Center in Porterville.

The Court’s Self Help Center staff will be operating remotely, by telephone and email, during their closure period. Please email questions to [email protected], or call 559-737-5500 ext 7104. Self Help Center staff will also be operating on reduced hours and staff, so it may take a few days for someone to get back to you.

Restaurants continue to close at an alarming rate as take-out is not enough to fund their overhead and staffing.

Virtual links

The state guidelines for essential workers is broader and more inclusive than the county’s emergency order approved by the Board of Supervisors on March 17. Similar to the Governor’s order, the county has mandated, at least for the time being, that bars, wineries, breweries and pubs close along with entertainment venues such as casinos, card rooms, movie theaters, live performance theaters, amusement parks and attractions, gymnasiums and health clubs and golf courses.

The last of those garnered a lot of attention at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Chair Pete Vander Poel mentioned he had personally received a lot of calls from individuals asking why golf courses were closing in Tulare County but remained open in places like San Luis Obispo County. Exeter, River Island in Springville, and Ridge Creek in Dinuba and Valley Oak in Visalia have all closed.

“’Why are we not allowing golfing as an important recreational option to get out’ is what they are asking,” Vander Poel said. “There is an inconsistent landscape and I just want to provide some clarity.”

Tim Lutz, Tulare County HHSA director, said he reached out to several counties and found that golf courses were closed in Merced, San Benito, Monterrey and LA counties.

“Public parks are open but trying to put out information that team sports, things bring people close together, is what we are trying to get away from,” Lutz told the board. “The order did say golf courses should be closed. If a breakout of COVID-19 concerns, it could be a costly mitigation to sanitize the course.”

Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Haught said the only way the county can survive the outbreak without calamity is to continue to minimize gatherings outside of household units.

“I think everyone agrees that golf courses are not part of essential services,” Haught said.

ABC licenses, such as wine and beer and liquor licenses, have been suspended along with county permits for special events.

Furthermore, all social gatherings are prohibited including church services, concerts, sporting events, conferences and service clubs.

Retail order

Most of the misunderstanding has come from retail. The county’s emergency order does not explicitly say anything about retail, so small business retailers aren’t sure if they are open to the public or not. The only retail mentioned in the Governor’s order are big box stores that sell groceries, such as Walmart, Target and Costco. So can retail be open or not?

The only person willing to directly answer the question was Supervisor Kuyler Crocker, who had just received an update from Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) Director Tim Lutz at the March 24 Board of Supervisor meeting.

“If it is not listed as essential than it’s not supposed to be open,” Crocker said. “That’s what the Governor’s order says.”

Crocker tempered his comments by saying that retail also creates a huge enforcement issue, one that the County is unlikely to take up any time soon.

“I wouldn’t pull law enforcement away from their essential duties to close down a business,” Crocker said. “But we do need businesses to be cooperative and work with us.”

Businesses that have been ordered to close are allowed to have owners, managers and supervisory staff on site to conduct minimum operations, as long as they observe social distancing and best hygiene practices. Violations carry a maximum fine of $1,000 and six months in jail.

“It’s hard for all of us given the weight of this,” Lutz said. “It is a very heavy decision regarding any of these businesses because we don’t want to see any of them close.”

Lutz admitted that the biggest confusion from the business community is what should be closed and what is considered essential, which is why he created a business liaison for COVID-19 related questions. The position is being filled by a supervisor in the Environmental Health Department which handles restaurant health inspections for bars and restaurants. Business can submit questions to the liaison by calling 559-624-7440 or emailing [email protected]

“We are getting a lot of questions from the business community,” Lutz said. “We are trying to find the best happy medium but stay in the spirit of not having gatherings.”

The Sun-Gazette called the business resources line last Thursday but did not get a response to its questions as of press time.

Lutz said HHSA is working closely with the DOC to put out an FAQ on which businesses are ordered to close and which are allowed to be open under the Governor’s order.

“Our rule is to follow the CDPH guidance, realizing that parts of that are vague,” he said. “Flexibility important but helping to ensure the safety of the public is of utmost importance.”

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