Desert Sun: Updates: Riverside County debates reopening; East Valley students get help with internet access

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Published: 10:24 a.m. PT May 4, 2020

As Riverside County reported 174 new COVID-19 cases and 20 new virus-related deaths on Monday, local officials battled over the future of the county-wide orders in place to contain coronavirus.

Several Riverside County supervisors, along with other elected officials and business leaders, made their case for reopening the economy to the public during a live-streamed press conference at MADE, a home decor store on Magnolia Avenue in Riverside.

Some rural California counties like Lassen, Modoc, Trinity and Sierra have no confirmed cases of COVID-19, while Riverside County has more than 4,000. Nevertheless, Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said Gov. Gavin Newsom should consider Riverside County as one of the first to advance to “Phase 2” and limited reopening.

“We need our economy to reopen. We cannot afford to pay for the services we provide to residents today with a closed economy. It will not sustain itself. We will be encountering large layoffs and large cuts if we do not get this economy open,” he said.

Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey stressed the need to fight the economic downturn and coronavirus simultaneously. Although the city of Riverside had 767 cases and 50 deaths as of Monday, Bailey highlighted how roughly 60% of the cases were among nursing home residents and staff. With evidence that cases are concentrated in hotspots like nursing homes, Bailey said, it makes sense to allow businesses to slowly reopen.

“We have a war on two fronts, with the virus and the economy,” he said. “We don’t have a surge at the hospitals … but our economy is suffering. Our city and county budgets are at risk and, with over 190,000 unemployment claims in our county, we must turn our attention to the war on our economy.”

The pleas came a day before Riverside County supervisors are expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal from Supervisors V. Manuel Perez and Karen Spiegel that would end a series of public health orders put in place by Riverside County’s public health officer, Dr. Cameron Kaiser. They want to alter orders that:

  • Directed schools and colleges to close.
  • Limited the operation of short-term vacation rentals throughout the county.
  • Allowed golf courses to reopen for restricted use.
  • Mandated the use of face coverings and social distancing in public places.

Their proposal marks an effort to align with Newsom’s plan to reopen California in stages. The county’s move would not overrule the state’s stay-at-home, social distancing and face-covering orders.

Despite the support from some local officials and business associations, the proposal has generated pushback from organized labor; U.S. Reps. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, and Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert; Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside; Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Christy Holstege; and Coachella Councilmember Megan Beaman Jacinto.

“While the Supervisors’ messaging on this issue focuses much on what they call ‘aligning with the state,’ the truth is that the state has merely set the minimum precautions,” Beaman Jacinto and Holstege wrote in a joint statement on Monday. “There are more deliberative, strategic, and community-focused ways to get our residents back to work and back to school and reopen local businesses, and in the process, we will be more likely to avoid further and potentially worse economic interruptions.”

Ruiz also released a statement Monday evening calling for a cautious approach to reopening due to the area’s demographics, such as a generally older population in cities such as Palm Springs.

“We haven’t yet hit our coronavirus peak, our valley hospital COVID-19 occupancy rates are going up again,” Ruiz said, “and we don’t have the safeguards like enough rapid testing, contact tracing, isolation systems, business and worker safety measures, or enforcement mechanisms in place to prevent or contain new flare-ups.”

County public health officials on Sunday announced only 16 new cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed throughout Riverside County, the lowest single-day increase since April 24. No new deaths were reported.

But on Monday, Riverside County health officials reported 174 new COVID-19 cases and 20 new virus-related deaths. A total of 181 people have died in the county since the pandemic began.

The county’s total number of cases is now 4,354. That number has more than doubled in the last 19 days, with 2,105 cases reported as of April 15.

Riverside County is now testing residents at a higher rate than nearly any other county in California.

As of Monday evening, San Bernardino County had confirmed 2,182 positive tests, 22,895 total tests and 97 deaths related to the coronavirus. But, the county had been updating its data since late last week, and it remained unclear on Monday how up-to-date its data were. The county has also severely lagged behind in testing, only testing its residents at a rate about a third that of Riverside County as of late April.

On Monday, state health officials announced that the total number of coronavirus infections around the state had risen to 54,937, and 2,254 people had died. That’s a 2.5% increase in cases from the day before.

In some good news for the state, more than 747,000 tests had been completed as of Sunday, an increase of about 32,000 from the day before. The state had initially set a goal of 25,000 tests per day but has since increased that to 60,000, in line with national guidelines from Harvard University.

Coronavirus cases continue to pummel California nursing homes

Nursing homes and other shared-living facilities for adults have been hot spots of the coronavirus pandemic since the deadly virus emerged in the U.S. early in the year.

Newly released data from the California Department of Public Health showed that, as of Sunday, a combined 8,081 residents and staff at licensed nursing homes around the state had been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus, and 733 residents and 15 healthcare workers at these facilities have died.

That’s a significant uptick since the weekend before. The state previously announced eight days prior — on Saturday, April 25 — that 545 residents had died, marking a 34% increase in that time frame. The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and residents at these facilities also rose dramatically — 40% — in this eight-day period, highlighting just how vulnerable nursing homes remain to the coronavirus.

Twelve nursing homes in Riverside County announced newly confirmed coronavirus cases over the weekend in the 24 hours preceding the state’s data analysis being released.

And new data from the California Department of Social Services found that, also as of Sunday, 1,430 COVID-19 cases and 178 related deaths had been confirmed in adult and residential care facilities for the elderly. While Los Angeles County by far had the most cases, 88 were reported in Riverside County.

The state said that four such facilities in Riverside Count had confirmed cases: Palms at La Quinta, Raincross at Riverside, Renaissance Village Rancho Belago and Welbrook Senior Living Arlington.

Newsom says some businesses may reopen this week

As the county supervisors prepared to align with statewide guidelines, Newsom announced initial steps toward reopening at his Monday press conference.

As early as Friday, the governor said, some businesses will be able to reopen under the second phase of his four-point reopening plan.

The next phase will allow clothing stores, sporting goods and florists to resume operations with curbside pickup. Newsom’s announcement did not immediately include dine-in eating at restaurants and reopening of offices, which were in previously stated Phase 2 plans.

He said a key consideration for entering Phase 2 is the ability for health authorities to test and conduct contact tracing of infections.

The announcement followed unsanctioned reopenings and pleas from local officials throughout the state.

La Quinta officials emailed a letter to the governor on Friday urging him to “provide the state’s plan to reopen businesses, services and restaurants in our cities within the Coachella Valley by May 8, 2020.”

Mostly written by La Quinta Mayor Linda Evans, the letter is also signed by Assemblyman Chad Mayes, and other Coachella Valley mayors, Glenn Miller of Indio; Ty Peabody of Indian Wells; Gina Nestande of Palm Desert, and Scott Matas of Desert Hot Springs.

When “non-essential” businesses were closed and stay-at-home orders were issued by the governor on March 20, the order was for two to three weeks, but California is now rolling into a second month with mounting frustration from people who want to go back to work.

“This is not only mentally and emotionally intolerable, but also an economic disaster. … we are ready to move towards economic recovery for our residents in our cities. We have seen the numbers for unemployment rise, and we cannot tolerate a worse recession than we experienced in 2008,” the city officials wrote in the letter.

The letter asks that the governor consider allowing the Coachella Valley to “exercise a phased reopening” of its businesses, services and restaurants to begin no later than May 15. It also asks that the valley’s hotels/resorts be allowed to accept a limited number of leisure guests by May 22 – in time for Memorial Day weekend.

It adds that the valley’s cities will ensure that businesses adhere to safety guidelines, as ordered by the state and/or county health officials.

The letter also points out that the Coachella Valley is entering its slow season.

“With the seasonal decline of our population leading into the heated summer months, now is the time to collaborate with our year-round residents and business owners to thoughtfully reopen businesses and services, and energize our employment base,” the letter states.

Evans told The Desert Sun on Monday, the letter’s main purpose was to urge the governor to release a plan that includes dates.

“We (La Quinta) are not demanding to reopen,” Evans said. “We want to do it safely.”

But cities need time to help businesses and residents prepare for reopening, informing them of any guidelines and mandates they will need to meet.

“Ultimately the cities are responsible for enforcing the executive orders and mandates and some have been put into place (by the state and county) with little to no notification to the cities,” Evans said.

“If we’re expected to follow orders, we need time to be able to execute them appropriately,” Evans said, and let residents and business owners know what will be expected.

Wireless hot spots for East Valley students

The city of Coachella and the Coachella Valley Unified School District will purchase 3,000 personal wireless hotspots that will be placed in homes in that city and the surrounding area to ensure all students have internet access while schools continue to be closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, city officials announced Monday.

Jacob Alvarez, Coachella’s assistant to the city manager, said the devices will be distributed to approximately 40%, or about 7,000, of the district’s students who do not have internet access. The district provides students with computers and tablets for school use, but some of the students do not have internet access and have struggled to stay current on assignments while school work has transitioned to online.

Alvarez said the hotspots will be delivered to the district on May 15, and then they will be distributed to families from there.