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Counties make plans to reopen

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Some counties are laying out standards for COVID-19 contagion and response that they must meet before businesses can gradually reopen.

As Washington County, Wis. residents walked back into parks and onto golf courses on an April weekend, County Executive Joshua Schoemann was cementing some goal posts. 

During a weekend of protests in state capitals and major cities, he was one of many county officials working to create a plan amid emotional expressions and desires to bring their communities back to normal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 21, Schoemann announced the county’s roadmap to resuming normal operations for private businesses. Washington County shares a health department with neighboring Ozaukee County, and the plan will apply to both.

“What our plan aims to do is acknowledge that ‘safer at home’ is going to be around for a while, that the guidelines are going to be around for a while, that the culture has to change in Wisconsin and across the country for a while, and yet, we can balance that and being sensitive to public health while also being sensitive to economics and beginning to open up some of the things that make sense and allowing people freedoms and respecting their individual rights,” he said. “I don’t think that balance existed and we’re hoping to get closer to that with this plan.”

The county’s plan, based on guidance by the American Enterprise Institute, sets four benchmarks for the county to reach before businesses can reopen. It also shares many themes with Gov. Tony Evers’ (D) “Badger Bounce Back” plan, but Schoemann emphasizes the specific goals detailed in the county’s plan.

“I think dates, largely, are arbitrary, so throwing out May 26 (as an opening date) without any metrics, without having any hope for what that actually means was extremely disheartening,” he said.  

The county’s standards include:

  • 14 days of decreasing positive COVID-19 cases in the county (a criterion in federal reopening guidelines)
  • capacity to test everyone who needs it
  • the health department staff capacity to do contact tracing within 48 hours for every person who tests positive and
  • a decrease in hospitalizations to the point where hospital operations can return to normal, also a federal requirement.

At that point, the county and its businesses can seriously start reopening. 

“Once those four items have been met, we think that there are pieces that can be reopened,” said County Health Officer Kristen Johnson. “We’re following the governor’s guidelines but one of the immediate policy pieces that has to be in place is that everyone who needs to be tested in Wisconsin should be.”

Johnson said the county does have the contact tracing capacity and its hospitals have returned to their normal capacities. She said this was the time businesses should start integrating physical distancing standards in their operations, including limiting occupancy and allowing for adequate space among customers. 

The county’s plan sets basic safety parameters for several types of businesses and events, including factories, bookstores, restaurants, fitness facilities, beauty parlors and large gatherings.

“We have relationships with many of our businesses within our communities, and we feel part of our responsibility and part of our response is to help them through this and work closely with them,” Johnson said, noting that health department staff were available to consult with businesses. “We have something for our communities to respond to. Whether the safer at home order stays until May 26, whether it’s lifted May 11, whenever it happens, we wanted to be in a position where we could give people guidance that we’ve thought about it.”

“Calls to extend this lockdown without a more detailed plan for truly dialing up and reopening is just as reckless as calling to simply open without any enforceable guidelines, social distancing and those types of things,” Schoemann said. “This blueprint is specifically designed to provide guidance for people and industries and most importantly, to give our citizens hope for the bright future that lies after this pandemic.

“This isn’t a call to flip a switch and open everything up tomorrow. This is a call to use common sense and balance it with science.”

Sheriff Martin Schulteis was on board with the plan, though he worried warming weather might provoke less social distancing compliance.

“This pandemic is a challenge that we’ve never seen,” he said. ”It’s a very, very delicate balance between individuals’ rights and public health, but (the plan) protects those individuals who are most vulnerable while also protecting those individuals who need to provide for their families.”

“The worst thing that could happen is that we got overwhelmed and have to re-shut down,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile in Texas, Parker County Judge Pat Deen strongly disagreed with Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) timetable for reopening the state, which he thought to be too broad for 254 counties. Parker County, west of Fort Worth, has 20 cases and zero deaths in a county with 140,000 people.

“The governor’s order...essentially sucked the hope out of our community by taking away local control from mayors, city councils and the Commissioners Court,” Deen wrote on Facebook. “Parker County, like our neighboring counties, Wise and Hood, is predominately a rural environment and we have all been extremely proactive to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We do not have the same density as Dallas, Tarrant or Harris counties and should have been given the authority to make decisions that best fit our rural counties.

“I respectfully ask that Governor Abbott reconsider his position on setting restrictive parameters for cities and counties to follow and allow local decisions (to) be made based on our respective communities/densities and the localized spread, or lack of spread, of the virus.”

In San Luis Obispo County, Calif., the county relaxed restrictions to allow non-urgent surgery and outpatient practice, construction, dog grooming and recreational fishing, provided participants follow the county’s personal protection guidelines. The county is moving toward a more general phased re-opening and wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), asking permission to implement the county’s “Roadmap for Reopening.”

The county’s “order allows for a local interpretation of essential business services where the governor’s overlapping order lacks specificity,” Supervisor Lynn Compton said April 20. “We’re... going away from the essential business services definition and moving more toward businesses that can operate safely and sustainably without affecting others and changing our curve.” 

“And it’ll be over a period of months, and it will come with ongoing surveillance, ongoing contact investigation, I mean, case investigation, contact tracing.”

And in Eagle County, Colo., once a hot spot for COVID-19 cases thanks to skiers visiting Vail, county leaders sent a letter to the state, asking to loosen restrictions on the county, including stay-at-home requirements, travel prohibition, gatherings limitations and business restrictions.

“Relief from these provisions will allow Eagle County to tailor its future public health orders to effectively meet the needs of its community, improve behavioral health of citizens, and begin economic recovery for businesses and workers alike,” Public Health and Environment Director Heath Harmon wrote. “As Eagle County sees the COVID-19 curve flatten and the number of cases decrease because of  the county’s early and aggressive social distancing restrictions, and sees the impact of the  counties substantial restrictions on residents, I have determined that the community now will  receive greater health benefits from incrementally loosening restrictions as disease activity  continues to recede.”

Other states, such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, are being more aggressive. Tennessee will allow the majority of businesses in 89 of the 95 counties to reopen on May 1, with South Carolina and Georgia aiming to open before the end of April.  

Knox County, Tenn. Mayor Glenn Jacobs released a six-week plan for reopening that gradually increases business capacity following linear improvement in positive caseload. Restaurants and bars would gradually increase capacity, barber shops and hair and nail salons would be open by appointment only to limit capacity, and gyms and health clubs would limit occupancy to five people per 1,000 square feet and limit visits.

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