California Reopening Looks Vastly Different In Urban And Rural Areas

May 15, 2020
Originally published on May 17, 2020 11:17 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The latest move to reopen the country comes with a reminder that no central authority is calling the shots. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for reopening businesses, schools and other institutions, but they are guidelines. They are not orders. States decide how to apply those guidelines, and conflicts are emerging even within states. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf had strong words for parts of his state that have taken matters into their own hands.

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TOM WOLF: To the politicians urging businesses to risk their lives and to risk the lives of their customers or their employees by opening prematurely, they need to understand that they are engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe.

MARTIN: In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott is preparing to lift even more restrictions next week. He's been trying to limit the enforcement of lockdown orders. Last week, Abbott altered one of his executive orders to allow for the release of a salon owner. She had been sent to jail for opening her shop too soon.

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GREG ABBOTT: I think putting them behind bars is not the right thing. And hence, that's why I altered my order. But I've made it clear that it was the policy statewide that putting people in jail is not one of the available solutions to resolve the - during the course of this pandemic.

MARTIN: And in California, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has gotten a lot of attention for allowing many beaches to partially reopen. We asked Manhattan Beach Mayor Richard Montgomery why on the program yesterday.

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RICHARD MONTGOMERY: We've been locked down for six weeks, so to not be able to go anywhere - and parks were part of that lockdown. Now parks are open, but beaches - it's part of what our makeup is. And so people want to go relax and clear their minds. They'd walk for miles on the beach.

MARTIN: Let's go now to NPR's Eric Westervelt in California. Eric, good morning. You've been tracking the big differences between urban and rural parts of the state when it comes to reopening. What can you tell us about the differences between Los Angeles and San Francisco?

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Yeah. Good morning. Well, LA continues to have the highest number of virus cases and deaths in California. And in the Bay Area, you know, which was the first part of the country, really, to lock down, they had seen, you know, their numbers flatlining or trending down. But hospitals this week recorded their first increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in more than two weeks. It wasn't a giant spike by any means but just another sign of, you know, how tough and erratic this virus is and can be.

And no big city in the state has yet, you know, met the key health criteria set out by the state for reopening more businesses. I mean, there's been some modest loosening of restrictions - retail curbside pickup will soon be allowed in some cities, including San Francisco. Some hiking and beach rules have been relaxed. But really, it's just sort of incremental stuff. And, you know, the core of the stay-at-home order remains in place in the cities. LA County this week basically said, you know, our order will likely stay in place through the summer.

MARTIN: Wow. So what about places outside the cities? I mean, this week, more than a dozen rural counties got the greenlight to at least partially reopen. You traveled some this week to go see how it was going in these areas. What did you find?

WESTERVELT: Well, I think, you know, what struck me right off was how few people, you know, were wearing protective masks, at least, you know, in the places I visited. That's very different from the Bay Area and other population centers in California, where masks are pretty much ubiquitous, and - you know, whether you're doing pickup food or going to the market. And it was interesting. I mean, face masks have become something of a geographic and political fault line and, at times, a flashpoint across the country.

I went to parts of Sutter and Placer counties - that's northeast of Sacramento. You know, these are places that have had far fewer COVID-19 cases than the urban counties. Some businesses in a few of these, you know, more rural counties have been openly ignoring the governor's orders to stay closed. This week, that tension was diffused a bit when they got, you know, formal approval to reopen some businesses with restrictions, including, you know, sit-down restaurants. And some shopping malls could open up.

I met a businessman named Khurram Masud. He runs several Mexican restaurants in Placer County. He was both excited and a little bit weary as he tried to get his place in Roseville ready again for sit-down dining.

KHURRAM MASUD: It's been tough on all the families - not only on employees but their families and so on. But they're excited that this is finally opening up.

WESTERVELT: Here in Placer County, many welcomed the easing of restrictions. But some don't think they go nearly far enough. Sixty-two-year-old retired police officer Dave Mace (ph) and his wife Karen (ph) were walking in Roseville with coffees and without masks.

KAREN MACE: I think they should all be open.

DAVE MACE: We can't break the economy. It's just too much hypocrisy going on, you know? I mean, we have 100 people in Walmart, but you can't go get your hair cut, you know? I mean, it just doesn't seem to match up, a lot of stuff.

WESTERVELT: The state's governor continues to caution patience and say openings will be driven by data and safety.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: Reopening doesn't mean much if customers don't feel safe.

WESTERVELT: The virus doesn't adhere to county boundaries, and Gavin Newsom worries people won't either if there's a hasty or piecemeal reopening.

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NEWSOM: This is the big challenge. You open up a dense urban environment right next door to a community that's not open. People start rushing into that dense urban environment and coming back into their community. And that's why we want a regional focus, a county focus.

WESTERVELT: But that strategy is also leading to uncertainty, frustration and confusion.

RON SULLENGER: You can walk on the beach, run on the beach. You cannot sunbathe on the beach. Give me a break.

WESTERVELT: That's Ron Sullenger, the chairman of the Sutter County Board of Supervisors. Sutter is one of the counties where some businesses were openly defying the governor and began reopening. State alcohol regulators then swooped in. This week, they got formal approval to partially open up. But supervisor Sullenger worries it's too little too late for some small businesses, especially ones not allowed to reopen this week, including hair salons, nail salons and barbershops.

SULLENGER: They don't make a lot of money to begin with. I mean, you know, they're not cutting a fat hog in the rear end. The jury is still out on, did we wait too long? I hope not. I mean, I hope not.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Roseville, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.