Supervisors confront state restrictions, or maybe not

As Nevada County struggles to move out of the purple tier of COVID-19 risk, county and city officials have taken a pass when it comes to cracking down on businesses that are prohibited by the state from operating indoors.

Do you think there might be a connection? In the words of the folksy philosopher Homer Simpson, “Doh!”

The most recent tally for the week ended Feb. 20 showed the county’s rate of positive infections spiked to 5.5% after a decline to 3.5%. The county’s case rate was unchanged at 11.3 new cases per day, well within the purple tier.

The situation may actually be worse because we are doing less testing than the state average, dropping to about 286 per week from 350 per week in January. The state median is 346 per week per 100,000 residents.

The only way Nevada County is going to move into the lower tiers before everybody is vaccinated (something that won’t happen in a county with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state) is by limiting social contacts outside the house. But it is clear to anybody with their eyes open that restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues are operating in open defiance of the regulations.

The business owners and their supporters are openly defying officials to do something about it. Ken Paige, co-owner of Friar Tucks and a spokesman for the Nevada County Restaurant Coalition, recently told supervisors he would continue to operate regardless of restrictions.

“You can point to me as probably the instigator of all the issues you’re facing, and I had no idea all of this would happen,” Paige said. “But we’ve rallied. We have 300 to 400 people now, we have a war room of people.”

Paige added he is urging other business owners to reopen despite the COVID-19 mandates. “It’s going to take a bulldozer to take us down and we are going to continue to do what’s necessary, safely, responsibly,” he said. “We’re going to reopen all of our businesses, all of our cities, we’re not going to close.”

“I’m not going to cooperation with my own destruction,” Sergio Martignago of Sergio’s Caffe told the supervisors. Sergio’s, Friar Tucks, and Old Towne Café were actually fined and cited by county officials for refusing to ignore the mandates, but little came of it.

They are all back in business now. In the words of Amy Irani, county environmental health director: “Failure to comply unfortunately results in enforcement action, which is the last thing we want to do.” So they don’t.

But then Irani’s bosses, the supervisors, have shown little interest in actually cracking down on violators. An urgency measure went nowhere last year, and after listening to the complaints last month, board chair Dan Miller decided it was time for the board to discuss the state restrictions.

“For the most part, they had genuine concerns we need to address,” Miller said. (He might also be concerned about a new report from the Centers for Disease Control that concludes that when you allow on-premise dining with no masks, COVID cases increase six weeks later and deaths go up two months later.)

The supes will take up a resolution Tuesday from Miller and Supervisor Sue Hoek that…well, it’s not too clear. The agenda says the resolution is ‘supporting reopening Nevada County safely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in accordance with Nevada County health authorities.”

But the therefore part of the resolution merely states that “these facts demonstrate a need for collective and unified action from our county and surrounding communities.”

Grass Valley council member Hilary Hodge views this as a Trojan Horse, pointing to the last paragraph of the staff letter that states, “…we urge the board to adopt the resolution that outlines the importance of supporting local efforts to reopen Nevada County businesses safely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in cooperation with Nevada County Public Health authorities.”

“This, at a time, when COVID cases are increasing in our county,” she wrote. “This is a dangerous move and will further put our community at risk.” Hodge urged opponents to get involved in Tuesday’s meeting.

The part of the resolution pledging safe reopening of local businesses “in cooperation with Nevada County Public Health authorities” sets up an interesting dynamic. When Miller first broached the idea of opening restaurants several weeks ago, he got a quick objection from Dr. Scott Kellerman, the county public health officer.

“We’re still firmly in the purple tier; when we get to the red tier that will open up a lot more options for these restaurants indoors,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the numbers trickling down. If we do that, this county will reopen.

“If we take our eye off it we’re going to get in trouble,” he added. “We’re behind where we need to be, so I understand the frustration, but we’re doing better than previously when we were at 50 cases per day.”

This is one of the few instances I can recall where a county employee challenged a supervisor in public, but then this is Kellerman’s first civil service job. I suspect he heard from his boss and possibly Miller through the county executive’s office about his comments, which may explain the Miller-Kellerman love fest published in Saturday’s edition of The Union.

The “dialogue” had them falling all over each other with praise and kind words for the work they do—the Nevada County way, as some like to describe it. It comes across as an effort by Kellerman to make amends for what he said earlier. We’ll see if he has anything to say after Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.

Meanwhile, businesses that are trying to play by the rules—businesses like the Move! Fitness Studio in Nevada City—are beginning to look like suckers. They are trying to get by for now by holding morning walking sessions and keeping in contact with their clients over the phone, but that doesn’t come close to covering the rent.

“It’s frustrating and it’s confusing when we are very aware that we are one of the few gyms that are actually closed,” co-owner Wendy Riley told The Union recently.

“We don’t want to be the gym cops,” said co-owner Marilyn Rohrbacher. “We just hope and pray that everybody does the right thing but from what we understand that’s not happening, so it is just leaves us very frustrated.”

Since their elected leaders are showing no stomach or backbone for enforcing the state mandates, Riley and Rohrbacher might as well join the other scofflaws. 

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