When Gov. Gavin Newsom took to the podium July 13 for a noon press conference, nobody in Humboldt County was sure what was coming. For well over a week, the state had seen ballooning COVID-19 infection and hospitalization numbers, with a daily average of 8,200 new cases confirmed over the past seven days. Not coincidentally, the governor's county watch list — the list of those that had hit benchmarks indicating caseloads were veering out of control — had grown to include much of the state.
But so far, Humboldt County hadn't made the list. While local case numbers had spiked sharply with 36 new cases confirmed over the previous 14 days and 55 over the previous 21, other indicators — like available hospital beds and contact tracing investigation capacity — looked good. Other rural counties, however, were not faring so well, Newsom said, pointing out that more than 80 percent of intensive care unit beds in Placer, Butte and Lake counties were full as infection rates continued to climb.
Within minutes of taking the podium, Newsom pointed to the 8,358 cases confirmed in the state Sunday, July 12, and the state's rising positivity rate — or the percentage of all COVID-19 tests that return positive — which was approaching 7.5 percent.
"The data suggests not everyone is acting with common sense," Newsom said, announcing one of the largest rollbacks of any state since they started reopening their economies.
By the end of the day, Newsom and California Public Health Officer Sonia Angell had issued orders shuttering all bars in the state, and mandating that restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, zoos, museums and card rooms immediately cease all "indoor operations." For the 30 or so counties on the state's monitoring list, he also ordered gyms, places of worship, nonessential offices, personal care services, hair salons and malls to close indoor operations.
"In many parts of our state, we're still seeing an increase in the positivity rate, the community transmission, we're seeing an increase in the spread of the virus," Newsom said. "So that's why it's incumbent upon all of us to recognize, soberly, that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon."
The order is a potentially devastating financial blow to businesses, many of which had only recently reopened under modified operations plans and brought back employees who had been let go when shelter in place initially closed all nonessential businesses back in March. As of June 23, businesses in Humboldt County had reported more than $44 million in lost revenue and more than 2,300 lost jobs, according to a county economic impact survey.
During her regular briefing to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors the day after Newsom's announcement, Health Officer Teresa Frankovich said that while "our numbers are looking pretty decent right now," there's some reason for concern. As case numbers have increased in recent weeks, she said the county is seeing more travel-related cases, both in residents traveling out of the area and contracting the virus, and having infected family members or friends come visit from out of the area. More problematic, however, she said, contact investigations are revealing that new cases are coming with more contacts — indicating that people have been socializing more with people outside their households, gathering for birthday parties, barbecues and other get-togethers.
"We have more than 150 people in isolation or quarantine because of the extensive contacts people had while they were infectious," she said, adding that creates challenges with testing capacity and contact tracing investigations.
She explained that part of the reason Humboldt County has kept its case numbers down is through aggressive testing and contact investigations. When the county sees a confirmed case, she says, investigators work to find anyone that person may have been in physical contact with while infectious so they can get them isolated and tested, limiting their ability to unwittingly spread the virus to others. But currently, as contact investigators' caseloads are growing, testing has become an increasing problem.
As COVID-19 numbers have spiked throughout the country — with the national seven-day average of daily confirmed cases reaching 60,000 — testing capacity has been stretched thin. Supplies — from cotton swabs and receptacles to chemical reagents and laboratory equipment — are all in incredible demand and hard to come by, and corporate laboratories are overwhelmed with samples, creating lengthy backlogs. She pointed to the OptumServe site at Redwood Acres, which takes nasal swab samples from people and then ships them off to out-of-area corporate labs to be processed. The site used to get results back within two or three days, but is now seeing turnaround times of a week or more, which can mean an additional five days of someone unwittingly spreading the virus.
"The testing landscape has changed really quite dramatically," she said. "There's a marked increase in the amount of testing going on nationally and throughout our state, and it's exceeding the capacity of the system. ... Our chief containment strategy right now is being threatened."
And while Humboldt County hasn't seen a COVID-19 death since early June and has recorded just three hospitalizations over the past month, Frankovich reminded of the way COVID-19 typically progresses in a community. First, she said, you see an uptick in positive tests, then a week or two later an increase in hospitalizations, followed days or a week later by a bump in ICU cases and, finally, deaths.
When Frankovich concluded her report and it was the board's turn to ask questions, some supervisors seemed undaunted by her warning.
"Does the governor really have the power to do this," asked First District Supervisor Rex Bohn.
After hearing from Sheriff William Honsal that, yes, the governor and state health officer do have the authority to issue lawful health orders that shutter businesses throughout the state, Bohn implored the sheriff to hold off on enforcing the order for a week to allow local businesses to get through their existing inventories and not incur large losses. Honsal replied that he wouldn't begin enforcing the governor's new order until Friday, July 17. Bohn pushed back that they should get through the weekend before having to come into compliance with the order.
Honsal said county staff is already looking to help businesses move operations outdoors, saying they're working on allowing them set up on sidewalks and in parking lots.
"We are working with our businesses," he said.
While Frankovich indicated there have been some cases locally of people being infected at their place of business, some supervisors pointed out that the bulk of infections locally have been through travel or contact with a known case. That mirrors trends in other areas of the state, where officials have said gatherings have been the primary driver of new infections.
That's certainly been the case locally, as well. Frankovich and Honsal have repeatedly warned that they're seeing more people gathering socially with others outside their households, causing the virus to spread more rapidly in clusters.
"Family barbecues are not an easy thing to enforce," Frankovich said.
Last week, Frankovich and Honsal also publicly raised alarm over a pair of weddings reportedly planned to take place in Ferndale and Petrolia with hundreds of guests, each with the potential to become mass spread events. In a July 13 email to media, a Sheriff's Office spokesperson said the office had reached out to the wedding parties.
"One wedding party cited their event as a religious ceremony," the email stated. "The organizers agreed to reduce their guest list and carry out their ceremony abiding by the requirements for the place of worship sector."
Another wedding, the email stated, is believed to have moved forward as planned.
Meanwhile, there have also been reports to local media, the Joint Information Center's tip line and county supervisors of a local brewery that has been operating with impunity, crowded with maskless faces and little physical distancing. Frankovich indicated she'd like to see some enforcement of her orders when it comes to flagrant violations.
"It's a public safety issue," she said. "It's not a small thing if a bar or restaurant is packed to the gills with no distancing. We can't operate that way."
Embodying the ongoing push and pull in both Frankovich's weekly reports to the board and conversations in the greater community, Bohn later said he gets "really nervous" when officials talk about modifying the way people socialize and telling them "how to do that." After he later argued for the county to openly defy Newsom's orders, Public Health Director Michele Stevens piped in as she has in the past to remind people that Humboldt County's emergency response — from the flow of personal protective equipment and its testing contract with Optum to the construction of its 100-bed alternate care site at Redwood Acres to ongoing funding — comes from the state.
"We can't do anything that contradicts state orders," she said. "We do have to worry about funding being withheld."
Whether people agree with the need for Newsom's order in Humboldt County, there's widespread consensus among infectious disease experts that the risk of COVID-19 spread is greater indoors, where aerosols — tiny virus-carrying droplets exhaled when someone talks or breathes — can linger in the air. When asked at a recent media availability about Humboldt residents continuing to socially gather with people from outside their households (which is prohibited under state and local orders), Frankovich offered a bit of harm reduction advice, saying that if they insist on continuing to do so against all health warnings they should at least do it outside. The same logic extends to Newsom's orders.
"The idea is just to move these things outdoors to decrease the risk," Frankovich said. "Moving it outdoors reduces risk right out of the gate."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.