Moving ahead
On Friday, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted to support the health department's call for a variance to state sheltering rules. Photo courtesy Board of Supervisors

The San Mateo County Health Department submitted an application on Friday seeking a variance to modify its shelter-in-place order to allow local government to go beyond current state regulations related to COVID-19. It is the first Bay Area county to do so after the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to issue a letter in support of County Health Officer Scott Morrow’s application.

County Public Information Officer Preston Merchant said approval by the Board of Supervisors is the first of several steps required to reopen beyond the state. He and County Health Chief Lousie Rogers expect the state will make a decision whether to grant it next week. That would be followed by a revised county health order outlining the changes.

Merchant said that because variances have been granted in 53 counties across the state, he thinks it’s highly likely the state will approve San Mateo County’s application.

Prior to the vote, Rogers gave a presentation on current health metrics that showed the county has already met or is on track to meet each of the state’s 15-point requirements. Three of the metrics the county does not yet meet consistently — hospital admissions, contact tracers and daily testing numbers — are “on track” to be met, Rogers said. More importantly, she said, she and her colleagues in the health department feel comfortable that the county is prepared for a surge in cases and hospitalizations should it come. Rogers also said that the focus of future health orders will turn to personal responsibility and requiring residents to continue practices like hand washing, wearing face coverings and social distancing.

In response to a question from Supervisor David Canepa, Rogers said some other counties in have been approved for variances without meeting the full state criteria. Today, she said, the state is monitoring each county’s metrics closely and reengaging with those that are no longer performing up to par.

Over the past few weeks, San Mateo County leaders have suggested that the county is close to meeting the state’s requirements for a variance, but had yet to achieve some metrics, like decreasing hospitalizations and new cases.

But County Manager Mike Callagy said at a recent press briefing the county’s hospitalization numbers have been going down as it increases testing, contact tracing and the personal protective equipment supply.

“Basically, on any given day, we might meet most of the measures or even all of the measures, but what the state is looking at is what has our trend been either for the last seven days or the last 14 days,” Srija Srinivasan, deputy chief of San Mateo County Health, said at the press briefing earlier this week.

Outside of the Bay Area, almost every county in California has now moved beyond the state, which is currently in “early Stage 2” of its Resilience Roadmap plan to reopen. Up to this point, San Mateo County has attempted to be more strict or aligned with the state — and seeking a variance would be the first indication the health department wishes to open further.

“Currently, the county does not allow dine-in restaurants, hair salons and barber shops, museums, gyms and fitness centers hotels for tourism and travel to open,” a county update reads. “If approved by the state, the variance would allow Dr. Morrow to issue a new health order that, when he deems appropriate, could open additional businesses with restrictions that may include social distancing, face coverings and additional health precautions.”

Board members applauded the work of the health department in confronting the pandemic, and noted that much of the responsibility for combatting the pandemic now shifts to the public in following the state’s rules and being vigilant about maintaining safe practices.

“This is a really significant day,” Supervisor David Pine said. “It marks and acknowledges our collective success as a county in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re not out of the woods. … But we have been agile and courageous.”

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