Framework to be presented to the public next week

The county is beginning to move forward on reopening plans for the local community, while the state works on general guidelines.

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Lynn Compton spoke at Monday’s public briefing and reported the shelter-at-home order is shifting from the concept of “essential services,” toward a broader definition that determines if a business can safely operate.

Four areas in the current shift for reopening include non-urgent health care, dog grooming, and animal services, recreational fishing activity, and the construction industry — notably, the opening of County and City planning and permitting departments.

“We did not initially wait for the state when we put in place our local order, and it was the right thing to do for our community,” Compton said. “We are not waiting now on this ‘phased approach’ to reopening.”

The actions by the local community are somewhat independent of the progress of the entire state. Although state orders require certain actions by the local government, the county is offered latitude in making some local decisions based on local factors.

“Today, we have achieved what we set out to do,” Compton said, “and that was to flatten the curve and open the alternative care site [at Cal Poly].”

The current and recent history of low numbers of COVID-19 cases are a factor in the science-based decision making the county is relying on to begin steps toward reopening.

“We are working on a plan to safely relax some of the current restrictions in place, in phases and with medical oversight,” Compton said.

Madonna Enterprises CEO Clint Pierce joined the briefing and represented REACH as the lead agency cooperating with county officials in drafting the plan.

“I know first hand how hard this has been,” Pierce said. “This great sacrifice has been effective. Over the course of the next week, we are focused on a phased reopening of the county. This is a Herculean effort that would take 12 months and we are doing it in two weeks.”

The County’s top health official, Penny Borenstein, provides medical oversight on all aspects of the plan and progress to ensure the health of the community is maintained during the recovery.

She reported that nearly 900 patients had been tested at the public health lab, that about 400 tests were done last week at private-sector labs — leading her to believe private sector labs are testing at a rate of three times that of the public lab.

“We have the components in place to turn the dial up on this phased reopening,” Borenstein said, stating that the plan is careful, controlled, and safe.

As a part of the first phase of reopening, elective surgery is included.

“The term ‘elective’ surgery is a little misleading,” Borenstein said. “Someone who needs a knee replacement or has an abscess may not consider it ‘elective,’ and more accurately it may be considered non-urgent, or non-emergent surgery.”

In addition, animal services, both mobile and in-house animal service, have been adopted under “essential services,” according to Borenstein, meaning they are now allowed to operate. Fishing activities and fishing supplies are considered safe and fall under recreational fishing allowance.

The average number of cases in SLO County over the last 14 days is about 2.5 daily cases, below five, which the County holds as a threshold for concern.

“We have been flat for about three weeks,” Borenstein said. “We have done a really great job.”

Borenstein described reopening as a fluid operation of gradual progress, and that the County will operate “in the moment” as results dictate.

“When I say ‘in the moment,’ it doesn’t mean if we have one bad day we will go back into hibernation,” Borenstein said, “But we a doing much better than neighboring counties and other communities around the country and then world.”

As local County agencies prepare the plan, local elected officials penned a letter to state officials requesting authority to put the plan into action.

“The letter said that SLO County has done a really great job and we are ready to take the reins,” County Administrative Officer Wade Horton said. “I think the timing of this letter is very appropriate. We are ready to move forward. We are ready to work our plan.”

While emotions around the country, state, and locally have run high in anxiety to get the economy and life back on track, Horton assured those concerned that decisions around reopening will not be made based on emotion.

“We are looking at science and making science-based decisions,” Horton said.

As the plan to reopen begins to shape, there is not just a one-way road ahead. If care is not taken to ensure cases remain flat, restrictions may be reinstated.

“It is an extremely important point that we are not ‘flipping the switch’ on this,” Borenstein said, “we will continue surveillance on this and track contacts.”

State requirements for local decisions for reopening include certain frameworks and safeguards that the County is responsible to provide. According to Borenstein, all the factors needing considerations are met and planned for.

“We have our testing in place, and our epidemiology framework is in place,” Borenstein said, “[healthcare workers] said they feel we have all the PPE [personal protective equipment] we need going forward. Our plan will always have an eye on if things get worse, and contingency in place.”

Other news on Monday:

For updates on COVID-19 information for SLO County, go to our COVID-19 page