San Mateo County health officials opted to not align with the state’s shelter-in-place order ahead of when required, standing in opposition of six other Bay Area jurisdictions that will begin voluntarily shutting down business operations to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19.  

On Friday, the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and Santa Clara and the city of Berkeley announced the jurisdictions would begin instating shelter orders mirrored after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s regional approach. In San Francisco, Berkeley and Alameda County, the orders will take place at 12:01 a.m. Monday, with Santa Clara and Contra Costa at 10 p.m. Sunday and Marin at noon on Tuesday. 

“We don’t think we can wait for the state’s new restrictions to go into effect. ... This is an emergency,“ Contra Costa Health Officer Chris Farnitano said during a virtual press briefing Friday.

Most of the counties have not yet reached Newsom’s threshold requiring the closures when 85% of ICU beds at regional hospitals are full. But officials said hospitals in the region will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks when Newsom’s order would apply.

Restaurants in those areas will have to close to indoor and outdoor dining, and bars and wineries must close along with hair and nail salons and playgrounds. Retail stores and shopping centers can operate with just 20% customer capacity. Gatherings of any size with people outside a household are banned.

Bay Area health officers held a meeting Thursday night to discuss the move. Ultimately, San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow decided to not place further restrictions on the county until required under the state system. In a statement released Friday, San Mateo County officials cited an interest in working with businesses and residents to slow the surge. 

“[T]he County of San Mateo remains focused on following the state’s existing metrics and process, while reinforcing the public’s responsibility to comply with existing safety measures — especially avoiding gatherings — to slow the spread of COVID-19 during the holiday season,” read the statement. 

The new stay-at-home order will cut sharply into the most profitable shopping season and threaten financial ruin for businesses already struggling after 10 months of on-again, off-again restrictions and slow sales because of the pandemic.

By remaining as open as allowed, county officials hope to give business owners a chance at economic survival while operating safely. Board of Supervisors President Warren Slocum said he supports Morrow’s decision, adding “let’s give people a chance to comply.” 

“I have confidence in Dr. Morrow who’s tracking this every hour,” said Slocum. “Our good doctor didn’t go along with the preference of the group, so be it. … Let’s hold the course. People have the power to address this.” 

Alternatively, Supervisor David Canepa, said he respectfully disagrees with the decision to remain open, adding he and his family would be taking extra precautions. 

“When it comes to me and my family, we’re going to shelter in place because the virus knows no boundaries. While I’ve agreed with Dr. Morrow 99.9% of time, I just think right now we got to take a pause. We really need to take a step back,” he said.  

While his stance has publicly been “why wait,” he acknowledged small businesses struggling to survive are at risk of permanent closures. But the recent surge in cases, which took the county from one of the least restrictive tiers to the most restrictive in the matter of weeks, feels urgent to Canepa. 

San Mateo County was moved into the state’s most restrictive purple tier, effective Sunday, Nov. 29, after reporting a daily new case average of more than 15 cases per every 100,000 residents, resulting in an adjusted case rate of 7.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.

“I think in two to three weeks neighboring counties will be below hospital capacity. … Regionally ICUs are going to be stretched and we’re going to bear the burden,” said Canepa. “The bottom line is there’s a difference and I do feel bad but you got to be able to sleep at night.” 

Other San Mateo County officials have routinely expressed confidence in hospital surge capacity within the county, but recently voiced alarm for how rapidly the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 grew. For weeks up until late November, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the county steadily remained in the low 20s, dipping into its lowest points in early November since the pandemic began. 

Now, 80 San Mateo County residents are receiving hospital treatment, 21 in the ICU. And 176 residents have died out of the 15,217 who tested positive for the highly infectious respiratory disease. 

Sara Cody, Santa Clara County health officer, said the number of ICU beds filled with COVID-19 patients has tripled in the last month and continues to accelerate, setting a record for admissions Thursday. By Friday, there was just 14% of ICU capacity in the county of 2 million people.

“Our biggest fear all along — that we won’t have a bed for you or your mother or your grandmother or grandfather when they get sick — is the reality we’ll be facing unless we slow the spread,“ San Francisco Mayor London Breed said. 

The health officer said San Francisco has a week to stabilize the spread, otherwise its hospital systems will run out of ICU beds on Dec. 27.

In San Mateo County, officials implored residents to act collectively in slowing the spread of the virus by avoiding large gatherings, regularly hand washing, wearing face coverings and getting tested. 

“We acknowledge the reality of the pandemic fatigue that residents are experiencing and the need to find sources of support through this challenging period. Our collective focus must be on finding ways to support each other through this crisis safely while limiting gathering and adhering to face covering,” said Louise Rogers, chief of San Mateo County Health.

It was a sentiment echoed by County Manager Mike Callagy.

“We know our residents have sacrificed and patience is growing thin, but we need you to know that you have the power to curb the spread and preserve hospital capacity for those who will need care in the coming weeks. We can get through this together if each of us takes action now to social distance, wear face coverings and avoid gatherings,” said Callagy.

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