Rural California counties persist in defying virus order despite governor calling it a 'mistake'

Yuba Sutter Mall

Two rural counties that defied California’s stay-at-home order and reopened businesses aren’t backing down even though Gov. Gavin Newsom calls their decision “a big mistake” that could slow the state’s recovery from the coronavirus.

Yuba and Sutter counties, with a combined population of about 175,000, are the largest to rebel against Newsom’s order that shut down most businesses around the state in a bid to keep people from mass gatherings and slow the spread of COVID-19 cases.

Restaurants, hair salons and many other businesses barred under the state order reopened Monday in the counties just north of Sacramento. On Wednesday morning, the Yuba Sutter Mall planned to throw open its doors for the first time in seven weeks.

“It’s really going to be the first mall in California I think that’s reopening,” General Manager Natasha Shelton said.

The mall has a fitness center and about 50 stores but as many as half may not immediately reopen, Shelton said. For the others, social distancing will be encouraged, business hours will be shortened to allow for more cleaning and customers will be able to pick up purchases at curbside.

“We are following all public health recommendations,” Shelton said. “Our goal is to create a healthy environment where our customers feel comfortable to shop.”

Newsom lashed out at the counties Tuesday.

“They are putting their public at risk,” Newsom said. “They are putting our progress at risk. These are exceptions. The overwhelming majority of Californians are playing by the rules and doing the right thing.”

He urged county officials to “do the right thing” but stopped short of threatening a crackdown.

The state is willing to work with them “to accommodate their local needs” but only if proper procedures are followed, Newsom said.

“We believe in ‘ready, aim, fire,’ not ‘ready, fire, aim,’” he said.

Sutter County Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer said he was “irritated” by Newsom’s comments. He said the counties were following the directive of their shared public health officer, Dr. Phuong Luu.

“I took my family out to dinner last night and couldn’t have felt safer,” he said Tuesday.

California was the first state to impose a mandatory stay-at-home order, which officials say has helped slow the rise in coronavirus cases but which also has battered the state’s economy. Since taking effect March 19, millions have lost jobs and pressure is growing to begin reopening stores.

The loudest calls have come from conservative and Republican-leaning communities and from small rural counties that have seen few confirmed COVID-19 cases. They have pushed harder for a swift reopening than huge, dense urban areas that are still struggling with rising numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.

Only one other county has defied Newsom’s stay-at-home order: Modoc, in the far northeast of the state. It hasn’t had a single confirmed COVID-19 case among some 8,800 residents.

Newsom, a Democrat in a Democrat-controlled state, has seen general support for his virus-fighting policies despite a flurry of protests and lawsuits.

He has been reluctant to loosen the order too quickly, preferring a slower approach he says relies on science and data instead of political or economic pressure.

To reopen, Newsom says the state must be able to test enough people for the virus and find people exposed people so they can isolate to reduce the risk of spread. He also says hospitals need to be prepared for a surge of cases and the state must have enough protective gear.

Newsom released a report card this week showing the state was on schedule for those requirements.

Based on improving data on hospitalizations due to the virus, Newsom planned to make his first significant changes to the stay-at-home order on Thursday and allow businesses like bookstores, florists and sporting goods stores to reopen, with curbside pickup. The new order wouldn’t apply to hair salons or malls or allow diners inside restaurants, which under a multi-phased reopening plan could have to wait another month or more.

The San Francisco Bay Area counties and Los Angeles County have said they plan to keep local orders that are stricter than what Newsom will unveil Thursday.

The Rural County Representatives of California, an association of 35 California counties, has urged members not to permit malls, gyms and salons to reopen until the state restrictions ease.

“Counties need to be aware that the state has a lot of tools to use to prevent that,” for instance by revoking licenses for serving alcohol or for hair and nail salons, said Paul A. Smith, the group’s senior vice president of government affairs. “So they need to really be careful about that.”

California has more than 58,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 2,400 deaths. However, the number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.


Associated Press reporters Don Thompson and Kathleen Ronayne contributed.