2 California counties, once defiant, see virus cases rise

At a bus stop in Yuba City, Ron Starkey sat on a concrete wall watching videos on his phone, a white face mask tightly folded in his right hand.

He wears the mask at work because his employers make him, and he wears it on the bus because his girlfriend asks him to. But he’s not happy about it.

“I think this is all a hoax,” Starkey, 57, said Thursday. “They are trying to distract everybody. They are trying to panic everybody. They are trying to control everybody. That’s how I feel.”

Sutter County, where Starkey lives, was one of the first places in California to more broadly reopen its economy. It and neighboring Yuba County defied Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order to let restaurants, hair salons, gyms and a shopping mall reopen in early May.

County leaders had passionately argued the two mostly rural counties shouldn’t be under the same rules as Los Angeles and other major population centers. Their counties are filled with farmland ready-made for social distancing and at that point both counties had only a relative handful of cases and barely any hospitalizations.

But two months later, the counties that together have a population of about 175,000 are averaging a combined 30 new cases per day — up from five at the beginning of June — with what the counties’ shared public health director calls a “scary elevation of hospitalized cases” from seven to 21 in just one week.

The rising numbers prompted state officials on Thursday to place Sutter and Yuba on a monitoring list of counties with rapidly increasing caseloads. If they stay there for three days all bars will close and restaurants and other businesses must halt indoor operations.

“People are not taking it seriously,” Dr. Ngoc-Phuong Luu, Yuba-Sutter public health director, said Tuesday in an interview with KETQ radio. “People felt that we beat it and it went away. It never went away.”

California in March was the first state to impose a mandatory stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the virus. Public health officials praised the state’s quick action, marveling at how the nation’s most populous state kept its cases and hospitalizations low while states like New York and New Jersey struggled to contain the highly contagious disease.

By late April Newsom was under increasing pressure to begin reopening the economy. Sutter and Yuba were among a few Northern California counties that didn’t wait for him to act, pressing ahead with their own plans.

Newsom criticized and threatened them but ultimately they stayed open. Newsom began slowly and then more quickly allowing businesses and activities to resume, citing the state’s increased hospital capacity to handle a new surge of cases. Cases began rising in early June and have exploded since, increasing 48% in the past two weeks while hospitalizations have increased 40%.

Now, 29 counties have been added to the state’s watch list, requiring bars to close and indoor operations to cease at restaurants, wineries and tasting rooms, movie theaters, zoos, museums, cardrooms and family entertainment centers, which include bowling alleys, miniature golf and arcades.


However, leaders in Yuba and Sutter counties are still asking for special treatment. A letter to Newsom signed by the chair of the Sutter County Board of Supervisors says their data shows most outbreaks trace back not to bars and restaurants, but to indoor gatherings of families and friends, most likely for things like graduation parties and Fourth of July get-togethers.

“It seems unjust to close certain businesses at this economically perilous moment without evidence they are a significant factor in the spike in cases,” the letter says.

The California Department of Public Health’s website says 40% of the cases in the counties are unknown because of “cases not able or unwilling to provide source of exposure.”

The governor has not responded to the request, but he likely won’t make an exception for the two counties about 30 miles (48.2 kilometers) north of the state Capitol in Sacramento that, like most Northern California rural counties, lean Republican. This time, county leaders can’t afford to cross Newsom. The state budget lawmakers approved last month gives the governor authority to withhold $2.5 billion in federal aid from local governments that don’t comply with state public health orders.

Sutter County is facing a roughly $5 million deficit and desperately needs the federal money, County Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer said.

“I think the governor lost control, now he’s trying to gain the control back,” Ziegenmeyer said.

Businesses are bracing for another round of closures. Lori Pack, manager at Linda’s Soda Bar and Grill on Plumas Street, said they did takeout-only for three weeks earlier this year and “it’s just not sustainable.” They could do more outside dining, she said, but sidewalk space is small and the summer heat will keep people away.

Residents are frustrated, including 50-year-old Billie Gamez, who was strolling the Yuba Sutter Mall on Thursday with her husband while wearing a face mask, which are required under an order Newsom imposed mid-June. She works at a WalMart and said she routinely sees people not wearing masks or social distancing.

“It’s such a simple thing to keep your mask on, so why has it become such a huge thing?” she said. “They want everything open, but you don’t want to wear a mask. How stupid is that?”


Shirley Gabhart said she wears a mask in public and turns down party invitations, including one this weekend to celebrate her grand nephew’s birthday. But the 74-year-old said she doesn’t see the virus as a threat, saying she believes Newsom, a Democrat, just wants to slow the economy to prevent President Donald Trump from being reelected in November.

She sat at the the counter of Linda’s Soda Bar and Grille, where she has been a regular customer for years. Gabhart said it would be “a horrible thing” for the state to force the restaurant to close its indoor dining, saying she wasn’t worried about contracting the virus by eating in public.

“God knows when I’m going to die,” she said. “These politicians don’t know.”