The path to reopening Mono County. Which way to Mammoth Lake?

The state of Mono County’s coronavirus response; COVID-19 business operations guidelines, Mono County business survey; Public health…

The state of Mono County’s coronavirus response; COVID-19 business operations guidelines, Mono County business survey; Public health updates

By Monica Prelle

The path to reopening Mono County is a lot like giving directions to Mammoth Lake. No one has been down that road — it’s a mythical destination that does not yet exist — which makes it tough to find the way.

The local economy depends on tourism, movement of people to and from our mountain community. The pandemic also thrives on movement — asymptomatic carriers transmitting the disease in ways that the global medical community does not yet entirely understand.

If anything is certain, residents are getting frustrated. We are living in an environment that we can’t control and the future is unknown.

The most common question in local community meetings lately is: When are we going to re-open? If you’ve been paying attention, there is clearly not an answer to that question. But Gov. Gavin Newsom has started to hint at the slow re-opening of the economy.

“We cannot get out in front of the state,” Mono County Chief Frank Frievalt has said over and over again. “The governor has not set a date, so we are not setting a date.”

Last week Gov. Newsom suggested that meaningful changes toward re-opening could be coming even sooner for people working in the retail sector, hospitality, and restaurants.

“We’re all impatient and we’re deeply anxious and deeply desirous to start to turn the page and turn the corner,” Gov. Newsom said. “The data is starting to give us more confidence.”

“We’re getting very close to making very meaningful augmentations to that stay-at-home order,” he said. “We said ‘weeks, not months’ about four or five days ago. I want to say ‘many days, not weeks.’ As long as we continue to be prudent and thoughtful in certain modifications, I think we’ll be making some announcements.”

Update May 4 at 5 p.m.: Today, Gov. Newsom said phase two could begin as soon as this Friday. Stage 2 allows gradual reopening of lower-risk workplaces with adaptations including bookstores, clothing stores, florists, and sporting goods stores, with modifications

Personal protective equipment and testing are still paramount to safely re-opening the economy. The state procured another 5.2 million surgical masks last week and already sent 5.1 million out around the state. In late April, Newsom announced the availability of more testing swabs, which is good news, but he also said that testing shortages are far from over.

According to CalMatters reporting, California has the third-lowest testing rate per capita of any state. Mammoth Hospital’s new in-house testing lab is open, but this does not mean more tests as the criteria for getting a test has not changed.

The county is also looking at antibody testing, but it is still not reliable enough and false positives would be counterproductive, Mono County Public Health Officer Dr. Tom Boo explained.

Nevertheless, there are currently only a few confirmed positive cases in northern Mono County and District 4 Supervisor John Peters is pushing the board to start drafting a letter asking Newsom to reopen the economy here, even if other supervisors don’t think we are quite ready. They plan to discuss this further at Tuesday’s regular meeting.

Chief Frievalt has made it clear that Mono County will not defy state orders, partly because it is the right thing to do, but also because the county does not want to jeopardize state resources. Mono County CAO Bob Lawton recommended that “those who think we can do better or open faster” contact Newsom’s office directly.

Many rural counties with low infection rates are anxious to re-open even if the virus is still prevalent in California’s cities. In last Friday’s press conference, the governor alluded to the fact that he may be considering a regional approach to modifying orders.

“I deeply understand rural differentiation between some of the dense urban differentiation,” Newsom said. “We hear you — we’re paying attention to you.”

Last week six Bay Area counties extended stay-at-home orders, while six rural counties formally requested the Governor reopen theirs, the Sacramento Bee reported. This week, three counties in Northern California announced their plan to re-open regardless of the governor’s orders.

Mariposa County, on the west side of Yosemite National Park, effectively stopped the coronavirus by utilizing wildfire emergency communications and alerting residents to heed the governor’s order, the LA times reported. The county just reported its first case of the coronavirus last week and is now working on how to continue management once vacationers are allowed to enter the park.

If you missed it, read Part 1: The state of Mono County’s coronavirus response: where we’ve been and where we are going.

Mammoth Lake is a mythical destination that does not exist. Photo: Monica Prelle

When will Stay-at-Home Orders End? The Next Phase in Mono County

California now has 53,616 confirmed cases and 2,215 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Mono County has 26 confirmed positives, one death, and no new critically ill patients. But even if the county has “crushed the curve,” nearly 70 percent of tourism in the region comes from other parts of the state.

So how can Mono County re-open its businesses to tourism without sacrificing public health?

“That is the ten-thousand-dollar question,” Dr. Boo said in last week’s virtual community meeting. “We don’t want to just open the doors and go back to business as normal. We have to be careful and try to balance the potential harms to community health with the needs of business owners and people who need to get back to work.”

Most of the original cases in Mammoth Lakes were restaurant industry workers, Dr. Boo told me. There were early fears that the Latino community would be hit disproportionately. The county has not collected ethnic data, but according to the California Department of Health data, Latinos account for 47.5% of the cases across the state and only 38% of the population.

Tourism is the biggest threat to public health, so Dr. Boo says he was very happy with how drastically the stay-at-home orders helped stop the spread here. “It would have gotten ugly quickly,” he said if the mountain had stayed open much longer, and if the governor had not ordered residents to shelter-in-place when he did.

But everyone knows the economy is suffering and more businesses will close permanently if they aren’t allowed to re-open soon. How to do that safely is a point of contention.

“From a pure pandemic public health standpoint, to protect the most people, the governor’s initial approach to not change anything until the entire state met the indicators the governor put out, makes a lot of sense,” Dr. Boo told me. “But now we are seeing politics and divisions develop, it seems like it is not going to work. People are too impatient and hurting too much financially.”

Planning to Re-open the Economy in the Midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Last month Newsom announced a 4-step plan to re-open the state. We are currently in phase one with only essential businesses allowed, in the next step low-risk businesses like retail and offices will be opening, religious services and movie theaters are part of the third step, and higher-risk activities like concerts and large even gatherings are in the last stage.

But now that could be changing. Everything is fluid and constantly changing, Newsom has reminded us.

As part of Mono County’s efforts to modify the stay-at-home order, the Mono County Economic Recovery Group published a draft set of guidelines for business operations so the county can start preparing for re-opening.

A few key changes include hand washing or sanitization stations at the entrance of all businesses, single-use face coverings available in case a customer forgets their own, and no-touch doors and payment systems whenever possible. Restaurant tables should be spaced six feet apart, and hotels and lodging should not clean rooms for 24 hours after checkout.

Consumer confidence will be key for visitors when choosing a destination, according to a Mammoth Lakes Tourism survey, and many of the new guidelines address how to protect the guests in different sectors.

The guidelines were drafted with the input of business owners and public health officials. Even though no one from the workforce was specifically invited to give input on the draft, anyone can offer feedback and Dr. Boo welcomes workforce response.

You can read the Draft Mono County Business Guidelines and then submit comments online via Google Doc in English or Spanish, or via email to Alicia Vennos at avennos@mono.ca.gov. The deadline for submitting feedback on the business operations guidelines is Tuesday, May 5 at 6:00 p.m.

Keep in mind that state standards for business operations during COVID-19 will supersede local efforts, however, counties may impose stricter mandates when appropriate.

Governor Newsom’s administration is also seeking input and guidance from different business sectors on how to best decrease the spread of COVID-19 and lower the economic impact on businesses. Anyone can fill out the California Recovery Roadmap survey online.

Business Survey and Loans, Unemployment, and Rent Assistance

According to a Mono County business survey, 60% of businesses have laid-off or decreased their staff because of COVID-19, 45% of businesses are not able to operate, and 50% of businesses have no revenue. Five businesses including Slocums Grill and Bar in Mammoth and the Fox Den in Bridgeport have closed their doors permanently.

The survey received 153 responses out of 550 businesses and nearly 70 percent of responses were in Mammoth Lakes. Cash flow, the uncertainty of re-opening, and Small Business Administration (SBA) relief are the top three concerns right now.

More than 50% of businesses have applied for SBA loans, but as of April 18, only 1.3% have received funding. Some businesses have said they received funds since the survey closed.

More than 30 million people have applied for unemployment across the country in the six weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began. California processed another 328,042 claims and disbursed $1.4 billion in benefit payments in the last week of April.

Some Mono County residents who qualified for unemployment benefits still have not received payments or received an initial check but not subsequent payments. California Employment Development Department phone lines and email communications are slow even as the department is hiring and redirecting staff for this purpose.

“The demand for benefits is far beyond anything we’ve ever seen even in the worst of recessions and we’re drawing on all resources possible to process and provide payments to so many of our neighbors in need,” EDD Director Sharon Hilliard said.

The new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for self-employed workers is now open and applications can be submitted online. This program applies to business owners, self-employed, and independent contractors, along with those who have a limited work history and others not usually eligible for regular Unemployment Insurance benefits.

Councilmember Hoff apologized to the Town Council for her use of profanity in a public meeting last week, “once the mortification let up.” She did not respond nor comment on why she voted no on rental assistance, but the program passed despite her vote.

Applications for Mammoth Lakes and Mono County rental assistance can now be submitted online. Paper applications can be picked up and dropped off at the Mammoth Lakes Housing office at 587 Old Mammoth Road #4 near Thai’d Up.

Mono County Public Health Updates

Mono County Public Health Officer Dr. Boo ordered face coverings to be worn by all individuals while in public spaces in Mono County. This is a new order is in preparation for the stay-at-home orders being lifted. Residents do not need to wear a mask when outdoors, recreating “way out in the mountains” when distancing is being practiced, he said.

Dr. Boo also ordered persons in Mono County with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 to isolate themselves from other persons for a minimum of 10-days, not the previously recommended 7-days. To be released from isolation patients must also be free of fever for at least 72 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications and other symptoms must be gone.

Last week Governor Newsom announced that elective surgeries that had been put on hold can resume. Mammoth Hospital has a green light, which means it is fully open, though patients will still be seen virtually when possible.

The nurse triage line is available for information and guidance to anyone who is sick and might be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Residents can call (760) 924–1830 or 211 for nurse support.

A video from two doctors in Bakersfield downplaying the severity of the coronavirus became viral on social media last week. The American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine recently condemned the opinions of the two doctors.

“These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19,” the ACEP and AAEM wrote in a joint statement.

Mono County Behavioral Health reminds residents to be kind to themselves and others during this time. Domestic violence is up. Substance abuse and opioid use is up. If you feel unsafe at home, need help to use safely, or want someone to talk to, counselors are available for phone support at (760) 924–1740.

Ongoing community meetings are scheduled weekly on Thursdays in English at 5:30 p.m., and in Spanish at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom.

Mono County is currently reporting one death from the coronavirus, 26 positive cases, 224 negative; a total of 250 tests have been administered.

Inyo County, which includes Toiyabe Indian Healthcare Project, is currently reporting no deaths, 19 confirmed positive cases of the coronavirus, 262 negative, 16 tests pending, and 297 total tests administered.

Monica Prelle is a Mammoth Lakes-based independent journalist.

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