State’s new framework for COVID-19 metrics provides clarity and presents possibilities for continued business reopening but also requires continued vigilance.

PictureThe main dining room at Buckeye Roadhouse.

By nearly all accounts, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s unveiling late last week of the new Blueprint for a Safer Economy, a revised statewide framework for business reopening amidst the COVID-19 crisis that centers around four color-coded tiers (see graphic below), brings welcome clarity.

It replaces the previous “county monitoring list” as a way to measure counties’ ability to loosen and tighten restrictions on activities and business operations. In doing so, it’s focused at a more granular level while factoring in equity indicators such as high testing rate in disproportionally impacted areas. Unlike the monitoring-list model, which was based on a matrix of numbers that was difficult to parse, the new system is based largely on new daily case numbers per 100,000 residents, as well as percent positivity rates. 

The new framework leans much more heavily on state guidelines instead of a county-by-county approach. It allows for new, much-needed progress for Mill Valley businesses, with local hair salons and barbershops able to open Aug. 31 (at 25 percent capacity) for the first time since late June, when they were allowed to open for the first time since March during the COVID-19 crisis, before being forced to close just two weeks later due to then-new restrictions on Marin and all of the dozens of businesses on the statewide COVID-19 Watch List.

That progress is propelled by Marin’s continued improvement on key COVID-19 metrics, with 5.9 new positive cases this week per 100,000 residents and an overall three percent positivity rate. That data puts Marin into the purple “tier 1,” but coupled with the state’s credit for counties with high testing rates, all indications have been that Marin will be able to move into the red “tier 2” soon after Sept. 8, the next scheduled weekly evaluation of metrics statewide. Each time a county moves into a new tier, it must stay within that tier for three weeks before advancing to a new tier.

“We made a lot of progress in August, so we know what it takes. It’s a team effort for all of us,” said Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis. “We’re at a critical junction. To hold onto these gains,s we need to stay strong in the ways we protect ourselves and others. If we see unsafe social mixing, or less face covering, we’ll see more transmission and could have to shut down again.”

As the county announced Friday afternoon, Marin enters “tier 2” on Tuesday, March 8, allowing restaurants to reopen indoor dining for the first time since it was allowed to do on June 29, only to have indoor dining’s return reversed just a few days later when Marin was placed on the watch list as a result of a sustained spike in COVID-19 metrics. Unless new daily case numbers and/or percent positive case rates spike in the next several days, indoor dining can reopen, but only at 25 percent capacity.

So now comes the big question for Mill Valley restaurateurs: 

Will that make a difference for restaurants relying so heavily on al fresco dining options and takeout/delivery? Does adding a few tables inside pencil out? And will customers feel comfortable showing up to eat indoors?

Felicia Ferguson, co-owner of Piazza D’Angelo, doesn’t think so. “Though we really appreciate the clarity around this new framework and welcome the progress, reopening at 25 percent capacity won’t have a positive impact on our bottom line, particularly given the heavy lift of reorganizing the restaurant to gain just a handful of tables,” she says.

There are impacts of the new framework on other industry sectors in Mill Valley if Marin enters the red “tier 2” next week:

  • Hair salons and barbershops could move to 50 percent of their space’s maximum capacity indoors.
  • Places of worship could hold indoor services at 25% max capacitor 100 people, whoever is fewer.
  • Movie theaters could open at 25 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer.
  • Hotels, which were allowed to open on Aug. 24, would be allowed to open their fitness centers at 10 percent capacity.
  • Gyms and fitness centers can open indoors at 10 percent capacity.
  • Restaurants that have bars may open them indoors only at 25 percent capacity of the bar area and 6-feet of social distancing must be maintained, though family members could sit together at a bar. Servers behind the bar must also be able to maintain that 6-feet social distance.
  • Plexiglass may be deployed in those cases to reduce risk, but plexiglass would not reduce social distancing and max capacity requirements for restaurants.
  • ​For restaurants planning ahead for the rainy winter months, outdoor tents may not have three or more walls on a tent, but are allowed to have two walls. 

The new framework would allow Mill Valley schools to return to in-person learning as early as Sept. 22, though such a move would likely be subject to labor negotiations between teachers and the Mill Valley School District. Sixteen Marin schools have applied so far for a waiver to reopen in-person learning, and another 9 waiver applications were submitted to the state this week, County of Marin officials said. Such waiver applications would no longer be necessary once Marin moves into the red “tier 2.”

But Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis cautioned against interpreting recent progress as a reason to let down our guard in any way. “Just because it is open doesn’t mean it is safe,” he said. “We need to move into a more mature and sustainable approach to this disease by having people take into account their personal responsibility to others and doing all of the things we need to keep each other safe.”

“The tone that is set by reopening inevitably goes to, ‘the coast is clear,'” Willis added. “But it’s the opposite. In order to take these steps we want to take for our economy, we need to be even stronger in these other ways that we protect ourselves.” 

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