‘It’s heartbreaking.’ How Newsom’s COVID stay-at-home order will affect Sacramento region

Eufemia Didonato

The greater Sacramento 13-county region appears to have escaped — as of today — further business restrictions under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new regional stay-at-home rules.

But with growing numbers of hospitalized patients, the capital city region may only be days from hitting the mark that will require extensive new business shutdowns, including the closure of outdoor dining at restaurants as well as full closure of hair salons and barbershops.

Faced with a dramatic holiday-season coronavirus surge, the governor announced on Thursday afternoon that if hospital intensive care unit capacity in any of the state’s five regions falls below 15% available capacity, those counties must implement a series of new closures and restrictions.

As of Monday, the Sacramento region had 24% capacity left in its intensive care units, keeping it for the moment well above the 15% threshold. But hospital numbers have been climbing dramatically over the past few weeks, and the Newsom administration projected Sacramento ICUs may exceed capacity by Dec. 24 if infections increases continue at the recent pace.

The Greater Sacramento region includes the counties of Sacramento, Yolo, El Dorado, Placer, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Colusa, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra, Sutter and Yuba. Combined it’s a population of about 3 million people.

The Northern California region is at the edge of 15% capacity level as well. Those 11 counties include Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity.

A map showing California’s stay-at-home regions, based on hospital ICU capacity
A map showing California’s stay-at-home regions, based on hospital ICU capacity

The new set of structures would be in place for three weeks from the day a region is required to impose the restrictions.

In a statement with his new order, the governor said:

“When the order is triggered in a region, it will have 48 hours to adopt the new order. Residents are required to stay at home as much as possible and minimize mixing to reduce unnecessary exposure, while still being able to do important things like go to the doctor, buy groceries, pick up take out, go on a hike, or worship outdoors.

“K-12 schools that are already open can remain open and retailers can operate indoors at no more than 20 percent capacity to reduce exposure risk.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday, the governor stressed that the latest shutdown orders are expected to be temporary, and will likely be rescinded as Californians begin to get vaccinated. The orders will “get us through the next month, month-and-a-half, two months, and then we’ll have that vaccine,” he said.

What happens with local schools

Most public school students in Sacramento County are still in school through distance learning. But about 5,000 students in grades K-5 at Folsom Cordova Unified returned back to campus in November in a hybrid model, and several Sacramento County school districts have small cohorts of at-risk and special education students on their campuses.

Those schools, along with private schools and districts in Placer and El Dorado Counties that have also been back in session, and will remain open.

“Infection and transmission on campus is rare when everyone is following the rules,” said Lincoln Snyder, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, which oversees 36 elementary schools in 11 counties.

With schools and school districts across the Sacramento region now scheduled to reopen campuses in early January, Sacramento County will need to return to the red tier by Dec. 22 — just days before Christmas.

And Newsom’s stay-at-home orders could further jeopardize January reopening plans for school districts such as San Juan Unified and Elk Grove Unified.

Caution, concern from health officials

Sacramento area health officials said they are reviewing the health order. Sacramento Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said earlier this week, however, that the county supports in concept the idea of more restrictions.

She said her staff’s contact tracers are already seeing a link between new infections and people who took part in Thanksgiving gatherings among family and friends.

New cases are coming from all sorts of interactions now, she said, no longer mainly from family gatherings and congregate care facilities. “It is everywhere as far as I can see.”

“A part of the concern is that in a few weeks we are going to be at the Christmas break, another holiday that brings families together,” she told The Bee this week. “We’re wanting to get ahead of that, so that it doesn’t compound the surge that we are experiencing right now.”

Yolo County health officials reacted cautiously to Newsom’s plan.

“The governor’s plan seems comprehensive and addresses the larger issues of COVID-19,” said Yolo spokeswoman Jenny Tan. “Yolo County will be reviewing the details of the governor’s shelter-in-place plan in further detail and communicating with our partners.”

Tan said the county has several questions, including when the new restrictions might be required in Yolo, and what the impact will be on businesses. “We will be looking at how to best protect the health and safety of all our residents over the coming days.”

‘We are putting a lot on the line here’

The yo-yo effect of restrictions in recent months has upset businesses because it is hard to plan and to budget when they do not know one week to the next what rules they must follow.

Joe Genshlea, co-owner of Revolution Winery & Restaurant in Sacramento, is among businesses who have tried to stay open but feel like they can never get their feet under them because of changing coronavirus rules.

Genshlea has ordered a $7,000 tent and heaters to allow him to keep his large patio area running this winter. Restaurants with patios have been the lucky ones, so far, he said. He and other restaurateurs say they want to do what is right, but also want the governor and county to provide data that show “direct evidence” that outdoor dining causes the virus to spread.

“We just want to see the information,” he said. “We haven’t seen direct evidence. We are being asked to make these sacrifices. We are putting a lot on the line here.”

Patrick Mulvaney, co-owner of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan restaurant in midtown, was distraught at the possibility of having to shut down his outdoor dining. “We’ve taken all these steps and it’s heartbreaking,” Mulvaney said.

“It gets harder and harder,” he said.

Fred Jones, a lobbyist for California hair and nail salons, predicted that thousands of salons could go out of business. “This will be utterly ruinous,” said Jones, of the Professional Beauty Federation of California. “We are the quintessential small businesses.”

Jeff Michael, an economist at the University of the Pacific, said the next shutdown wouldn’t be as dramatic as the orders imposed in March, but they’ll definitely drag the economy down as the holiday shopping season revs up.

“It increases the likelihood of a … mild double-dip recession this winter,” he said. Sacramento’s unemployment rate, which peaked at more than 13% in the spring, had fallen to 7.6% in October but is likely to rise again.

“If you’re going to close some services, limit retail capacity … it’ll move more shopping online and will depress consumer spending generally,” Michael said.

Most of the state remains under a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, which was imposed on Nov. 21 and will last until Dec. 21.

Should Sacramento fall under the stricter shutdown levels, stores would still be allowed to be open, but only with 20% capacity at a time rather than the current 25%. That move could be difficult for stores and holiday shoppers leading up to Christmas.

The Bee’s Sawsan Morrar contributed to this report.

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