SLO County plan for reopening scheduled for public presentation on Friday, must wait for State authorization to implement

Three days of high local testing by the SLO County health lab, in response to a positive case in a staff member of a nursing home and multiple positive cases at the California Men’s Colony, produced a low rate of positive results since Friday’s highest single-day count of 14 in SLO County.

The decreasing results continue to hold the door wide open for reopening the county’s economy and bringing industry and business sectors online in a phased and gradual rollout that members of the task force responsible for the plan reported will be a three-phase action plan.

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor and task force member Chairperson Lynn Compton provided an update at Monday’s SLO County briefing at the Joint Information Center.

The plan will be considered a framework for moving forward as a living document subject to change and adaptation to circumstances and information. Compton said the framework will be release to for public review on Friday, May 1.

“It will guide the loosening of restrictions,” Compton said about the plan.

The task force chairperson, Cal Poly professor and epidemiologist Dr. Aydin Nazmi expanded on the scope of the plan from a medical and public health perspective.

“Our community is living with COVID-19, and our community will have to reopen in the presence of COVID-19,” Nazmi said. “That is OK. As long as we open gradually and thoughtfully, we will be in a good position to recover economically.”

With 46 days of restricted economy and social movement, local, regional and state businesses suffer from financial damage, and each day brings further strain on thinning budgets. The goal of preventing the overwhelming of local healthcare was accomplished, locally and at a state level, and reopening the economy without initiating unmanageable surge of new cases that could diminish quality healthcare is the forefront of the framework doctrine.

“Loosening of any restrictions will be phased in gradually and based on local data,” Nazmi said. “Both patient outcomes, such as new infections, admissions [hospitalizations], and deaths, and capacity such as facilities, personnel, and ability to trace contacts will be drivers of County guidelines for loosening and tightening restrictions.”

With the opening of the economy, SLO County residents would be tasked to control the further spread of COVID-19 at manageable levels to prevent a backsliding of progress toward full economic and social operation.

“It is critical that loosening of preventative measures be retightened when local or regional data suggest regression of these parameters,” Nazmi said. “Data about these measures will be continually monitored and there is a spike in new cases or an epidemic curve is imminent, restrictions will be reinstated. We may need to take two steps forward and one step back.”

The expert task force developing the plan will provide for three phases of gradual reopening. Before entering phase one, Governor Newsom must lift or modify the current stay-at-home order, and public health guidelines must be met.

Part of the engagement process to develop the strategy, local chambers of commerce and cities provided localized feedback for the plan.

“The County and our cities should be given a lot of credit for working proactively,” SLO Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Dantona said, “and not like most governmental agencies, waiting to react. We had to react at the start of this crisis, and we are not letting that happen again.”

Over the course of the past six weeks, Dantona has led the SLO chamber to engage with business and banking experts keep businesses open, and qualify them for federal and state funding while the economic damage wreaked havoc on small businesses. As an advocate for business reopening, Dantona encouraged unity between local business and local leadership to work through the phases of reopening successfully.

“A healthy economy requires a healthy population,” Dantona said. “We have a long road ahead of us, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. If we continue to work together, we can and will save SLO County’s economy while also keeping our community healthy.”

SLO County Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein continues to monitor and provide direction for the reopening as the leading health authority. On Monday, she reported with a consistent calming attitude.

“We have four individuals in the hospital and none in intensive care,” Borenstein said. “That puts us right back where we were before the spike.”

For most of the past two weeks, Borenstein has pressed two issues into the public discussion — the need for continued distancing, hygiene, personal care, and healthy behaviors, and the forward progress of the County to begin a phased reopening of the economy and community.

San Luis Obispo County has been recognized in the national media for pushing the boundaries, respectfully, of the State orders for shelter-at-home. The plan for phased reopening is preemptive of the Governors relaxing of statewide orders against “business as usual.” On Friday, the County will make the plan available publicly, and the decision will be handed to the Governor as to allow SLO County’s local government to implement the plan.

“Everyone has given their intelligence and creativity and hard work to get us to phase one,” Borenstein said. “We cannot enter phase one until we get the go ahead from the governor. We are living under, abide by and respect the state order that is in place.”

The plan will be considered a living document, subject to change. Borenstein asked for continued input from the community to address needs and circumstances to apply to the plan as things progress. Currently, a single-question survey is available.

“Before we do any measure of reopening is that our positive cases don’t increase over a 14 day period,” Borenstein said. “If we have been flat over three weeks, even if we have some upticks, we will keep moving forward.”

Not losing sight of the reality of slowing the virus, not stopping the virus, Borenstein’s steady gait has shouldered the burden of progress for SLO County. Key factors and indicators of success have been met with flying colors, as the death rate per capita in SLO County is 100 times lower than California as a whole. The capacity for healthcare is leading the County’s approach to reopening, with a steady drumbeat of recommendations:

  • If you are sick, stay home;
  • If you are elderly, stay home;
  • If you experience COVID-19 symptoms, contact your doctor, urgent care, or the County;
  • If you are out, stay cautious and keep distance;
  • If caution and distance are not possible, wear a mask;
  • Wash your hands with soap and/or sanitizer;
  • Enjoy life, get outdoors, and stay healthy;

“We are keeping a close eye on our death rate and health care workers,” Borenstein said. “There has been a small uptick, but are rare, and we want to see that going forward. We are going to recommend to those vulnerable populations that they continue to stay at home.”

Borenstein did not admonish beachgoers for their weekend activities on the warmest weekend of the year, but urged health measures and caution.

“[Enjoy SLO County] in a way that does not actually present risk, or give the appearance of risk,” Borenstein said. “If you go to the beach with a family unit, stick together, keep distance — six feet is good, but 20 feet is better.”

As the weather warms and travel instincts kick in around the Central Coast, concern about spread of COVID-19 from out of SLO County, including areas with higher prevalence of the disease, into SLO County will be an ongoing challenge. Currently, the County is monitoring visitor activity from neighboring counties and other areas, through hotel occupancy numbers, and communicating with areas about visiting San Luis Obispo County.

“We are, at the time being, asking our visitors to stay away,” Borenstein said. “Hotel occupancy ticked up a little bit, but they are staying low compared to past years.”

Borenstein is scheduled to return in front of the public on Wednesday to give another report, and the plan for phased reopening is scheduled to be released to the public on Friday. Meetings are scheduled at 3:15 p.m., in person at the Joint Information Center in SLO, and streamed online from the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department Facebook page.

Stay up-to-date with local information and news at our dedicated COVID-19 page.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles