As parts of California begin a gradual reopening, cracks in the alliance between Bay Area jurisdictions are beginning to show. San Mateo County leaders say any differences between the public health orders reflect differing circumstances and not a lack of unity.

San Mateo County was among the first in the Bay Area to make a major reopening move. This week, in an effort to align with the state order, San Mateo County began a transition into the first phases of “Stage 2” of reopening, allowing some retail and manufacturing to resume operations. The decision, the order states, is an effort to stay consistent with current state regulations and test the waters for reopening.

But in converging with the state, the county is now diverging from the six other Bay Area jurisdictions with which it was formerly aligned.

The health leaders of those areas — Santa Clara, Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties along with the city of Berkeley — having previously fractured on reopening, all signed a joint statement on Monday outlining a united plan that appeared very similar to that of San Mateo County. San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow’s signature was not among the others, however.

Last week, the San Jose Mercury News’ editorial board criticized Morrow for loosening restrictions along with the state rather than moving alongside the six counties, calling it “an abdication of the county’s responsibility to the region.” The editorial cited the county’s relatively high rate of positive COVID-19 tests and low percentage of available ICU beds, and said any Bay Area county operating in isolation runs counter to the reality that the threat of COVID-19 remains fluid throughout the region.

In a press conference this week, County Manager Mike Callagy said all Bay Area jurisdictions are moving cohesively even if their orders aren’t exactly the same all the time.

“I think we mostly all are aligned,” Callagy said. “... I think certainly (the editorial) was an unfair characterization of Dr. Morrow. I think that Dr. Morrow talks to his colleagues probably every day.”

Morrow has declined an interview request. But County Public Information Officer Preston Merchant agreed, saying San Mateo County’s early move to revise its orders was due to increasing concerns about the economic effect of a strict shelter-in-place order and the health concerns that accompany it. He said residents without an income are less able to access food, shelter and health care — which compromises public health, too.

“We’re all in broad alignment around the shared goals of protecting public health and our economic needs, but we’re doing so at different paces and according to local data and our health officers' best judgment,” Merchant said.

The bulk of the guidance outlined in each of the seven jurisdictions’ orders appears similar. Each now allows curbside retail, related manufacturing and some outdoor recreation. But they do diverge in some areas. For example, San Mateo County is now allowing all types of childcare businesses to open to any workers, while Santa Clara County is still limiting those services to workers designated essential under the order. Marin County is now prohibiting short-term rentals, while San Mateo County allows them. One other difference is that San Mateo County is now reopening offices — although anyone who can continue working from home is still required to do so.

The most significant difference between the orders appears to be intention. The San Mateo County order declares it seeks to align with the state, while Santa Clara County, for example, characterizes its order more restrictive than that of the state.

Morrow’s order states that the new restrictions are intended to strike a balance: increasing herd immunity, minimizing death and economic damage and keeping the healthcare system and equity in mind all at once — priorities he sees as counteractive. Morrow wrote that it remains to be seen how the gradual reopening will affect the virus’ spread locally, and Callagy agreed it will be a test of their systems.

“Dr. Morrow wants to see how this ‘Phase 2 light’ goes over the next couple of weeks,” Callagy said.

This approach differs from the language of the order issued by Santa Clara County Health Officer Sara Cody. Shee clearly states her county’s order intends to remain stricter than state regulations because of concerns about local death rates and hospital capacity.

“Without this tailored set of restrictions that further reduces the number of interactions between persons, scientific evidence indicates that the public health crisis in the county will worsen to the point at which it may overtake available health care resources within the county and increase the death rate,” Cody wrote.

Callagy said differing circumstances among the counties is guiding their disparate approaches, and Merchant agreed, citing demographics and overall impacts of the virus as factors. A look at the numbers shows Santa Clara County, which has more than twice the population of San Mateo County, with somewhat higher infection and death rates. Santa Clara County is also showing a higher ICU capacity.

But each of the health experts has been quick to warn that case numbers do not accurately represent the extent of the spread of the virus. And when it comes to guiding reopening, the benchmarks continue to change. Just last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom altered the requirements for reopening, and San Mateo County Chief Communications Officer Michelle Durand confirmed this week that advancing to a full “Stage 2” of reopening will require two metrics. The first requires the county to have no more than 20 COVID-19 hospitalizations on any single day in the past two weeks or a less than 5 percent daily change in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the prior week. The second requires fewer than 25 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks or less than 8 percent of the population testing positive in the last week.

Callagy said the county is likely not on track to hit these metrics. But the county has moved forward with reopening without meeting its self-imposed metrics before. Merchant said in the long term, the county hopes to continue following the state’s lead.

“I think our goal is to try to move according to the state's guidelines as much as possible given our local concerns,” Merchant said.

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