Rural cities and counties up and down the state want freedom to decide when to reopen
In the Kern County oil city of Taft, officials are careful when explaining their stance on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s bid to stem the spread of coronavirus by shuttering much of the economy.
"There's no defiance," City Manager Craig Jones said. "We're trying to advocate some kind of change, but to do it the right way."
At one point, Jones’ voiced his thoughts on the indefinite closure of non-essential businesses more abruptly, though.
"Sooner or later," he said, "the governor's going to have to trust us to do what's right."
More than a month into the statewide shutdown, at least 14 counties and some other cities throughout California have had meetings — often with hours of fiery public comment — or expected to hold them so they could vote on drafting plans or letters to convince Newsom to let them resuscitate their depleted economies.
Like many hot-button issues in a state as geographically and demographically diverse as California, the debate over reopening falls largely along party lines, with conservative communities outweighing their more liberal counterparts in lobbying for an early start. But some say it's not so simple — that reopening sooner is just more logical in rural areas, which also tend to have more right-leaning voters.
"Truthfully, I’m pretty conservative myself, but people I talk to are basing it on risk and knowing the local circumstances are much different than someplace that has mass transit and has large populations in a confined area, you know?" said Siskiyou County Supervisor Ray Haupt, whose board approved a tentative reopening plan that's expected to be tweaked and reconsidered at Tuesday's meeting. "That’s just not us."
'Right for our county'
While six Bay Area counties recently voted to extend their sheltering orders, a cohort of as many largely conservative northern counties sent a joint letter to Newsom lobbying for the opposite, led by Republicans state Assemblyman James Gallagher and state Sen. Jim Nielsen.
In the dark red far-northeastern county of Modoc — literally as far in California as you can get from coastal and progressive Los Angeles — the plan was to open non-essential businesses on Friday even though Newsom hadn’t weighed in.
On the other end of California’s border with Oregon, a coastal Del Norte County supervisor attended a rally to reopen the area.
And down in the posh, Republican-heavy Orange County town of Newport Beach, City Councilman Kevin Muldoon even invoked the Revolutionary War.
“America needs to return back to activities of freedom. We are a free people. It was paid for by the blood of patriots over 200 years ago. It’s paid for still to this day. We cannot let fear, frustration or irrational behavior stop our fundamental God-given rights,” he said at that city’s meeting on a reopening plan.
The sentiment was similar in Ridgecrest, another Kern County city where nearly all the callers at a virtual meeting voiced outrage at the shutdown — including one who said the city should just ignore Newsom’s directive.
“Let Americans be Americans. Let Americans be free,” said the caller, who identified himself only as Dave. “This is our town.”
Still, some say the debate over reopening is a rare issue in California that bridges partisan lines.
“I wouldn’t put it on a partisan level — I’d put it more on a rural versus city (level),” said David Orosco, a representative for state Sen. Brian Dahle, who's been lobbying Newsom to let certain small counties reopen.
Most of the jurisdictions eyeing early opening cite their low population densities and small or even non-existent COVID-19 caseloads — not their beliefs. And they typically have plans in place that would call for social distancing and other measures, not a reversal to the early 2020 status quo. Some, like Siskiyou County, would only let certain businesses reopen at first.
“When you have about 9,600 people ... it gives us a lot of space to socially distance and take care of each other,” said Modoc County Board of Supervisors Chair Elizabeth Cavasso, whose county is one of the few to have no confirmed cases of the virus. “We’re all proceeding with caution as well as taking some action to move forward. And in some places it’s time, and in other places it may not be right for them. But this is right for our county.”
Haupt, of Siskiyou County, noted there hasn't been any known community spread there.
"We’re just self-sufficient, kind of what we see is the way we behave," he said. "It’s just — it’s practical, you know? It’s our way of life."
That's especially true in Haupt's fifth district, comprised mostly of the remote west-county communities like Happy Camp that also see some of the worst unemployment in the area.
"I know my constituents pretty well; they’re pretty independent, and, you know, at some point, if it doesn’t look like reality, they’ll ignore government," he said. "I mean, that’s just kind of the way it is."
Do politics come into play?
Haupt's colleague, nonpartisan Siskiyou County Supervisor Ed Valenzuela, sees both sides of the reopening debate.
“I, personally, am a bit of a risk-taker,” he said. “But when it comes to public health, there’s no way you can take that sort of chance.”
Valenzuela said he “can’t find fault with" the county's move to start coming up with a plan, but he believes Dahle and other state legislators are using the reopening to make a political point.
At the meeting, supervisors mentioned when voting that Dahle — who had already announced his desire for the state to let some counties reopen — wanted to be notified as soon as they approved their plan.
“I do think that, because of the timing, it was a political issue. I believe Sen. Dahle wanted to have a letter of support,” Valenzuela said. “From my perspective, it was political, which is where this is all moving to, right? It’s, ‘Hey, open up, don’t open up, do this, do that' — all those things come into play.”
But Orosco, Dahle’s spokesman, said the senator hasn’t been telling counties what to do.
“They’re all asking him, what do we need to do to open up California? I’m sure he’s been encouraging them to develop a plan of their own, because some counties and cities don’t have a plan yet,” Orosco said.
Dahle isn't the only politician making clear his stance on reopening.
State Assemblywoman Megan Dahle, his wife, released a statement Thursday calling for reopening, saying rural Northern California "all too often ... gets lumped into one-size-fits all policies alongside San Francisco and Los Angeles."
The same day, U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, sent out a press release that invoked country-versus-city rallying cries familiar throughout rural California.
"We shouldn’t have to wait for Los Angeles or San Francisco to meet the goals we already have surpassed," LaMalfa's statement reads. "If the reverse was true, we certainly wouldn’t see the state waiting on us to reopen major cities."
'We are prepared'
There have been five confirmed cases of coronavirus in Siskiyou and no deaths.
Valenzuela said he's gotten many calls against reopening, with people scared it would lead to a surge in the virus. But he's also heard pleas from small business owners that make him reconsider.
“Particularly up north … this hasn’t affected them at all. All it does is cause them grief,” he said. “When I call and talk to my fellow supervisors in Mono or Modoc, Trinity, Colusa — it’s never been a pandemic issue, right? We have never had any surge, so to speak, when it comes to that.”
While small counties are more known for having doctor shortages than surpluses, the ones trying to open say they’ve also factored that into their decisions.
“The hospitals are prepared for surge,” said Cavasso, of Modoc County. “We have the medical experts, we have the equipment to take care of our situation should we get any cases. So it’s not just that there are no cases; we are prepared, and our reopening plan describes that.”
Still, there are other issues those counties could come up against.
Newsom has said early reopening in even case-free counties could lead to infected travelers bringing the virus.
When asked how they might reopen the local economy without that happening, Shasta County officials pointed out that non-essential travel is frowned upon, but acknowledged they also wouldn’t have a way to prevent it outright. That county has also approved a tentative reopening plan.
“That is challenging, in terms of how that could otherwise be enforced,” Health Officer Dr. Karen Ramstrom said, noting Newsom’s own pleas to Southern California beach-goers before he changed course and ordered those places closed.
Cavasso noted how businesses in Modoc are being told to socially distance and take other precautions, while Valenzuela said “Nature is social distancing.”
Whenever the counties reopen, Valenzuela said he doesn’t want the decision based on convenient talking points. Some opponents argue that the shutdown is leading to more woes than the virus — and more deaths — thanks to its devastating economic blows and forced proximity for people in abusive households.
“One of my comments was, ‘I hope you’re quantifying, you know, the stress indicators … how many suicides have we had since they started? They didn’t say,” Valenzuela said. “There’s all kinds of things that need to be thought out.”
Journalists Doug Keeler of the Taft Midway Driller in Taft and Sam Metz of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs and Jessica Weston of The Daily Independent in Ridgecrest contributed reporting. Reach Keeler by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Metz at email@example.com and Weston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alayna Shulman writes for the Record Searchlight/USA TODAY Network. Her work often centers on crime, features and politics and has won awards for best writing, business coverage and investigative reporting in the California News Publishers Association’s Better Newspaper Contest. Follow her on Twitter (@ashulman_RS), call her at 530-225-8372 and email her at alayna.shulman.redding.com.