Under pressure

Chico and Butte County officials urge caution and plan for reopening as eager businesses bear down, some already flouting COVID-19 closures

Kandy Comfort at her salon/barbershop. Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Kandy Comfort reopened her Chico barbershop last week. A day later, she closed it. A day after that, she reopened it again.

Such has been the wrenching roller coaster she—and so many others—have ridden amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has put pressure on officials to relax restrictions imposed to minimize the spread.

Eye Kandy Barbershop, her business on Park Avenue, supports her family. She initially followed the emergency orders issued by the city and state by shuttering her shop, as it’s not categorized as “essential” by the government. The city, via Code Enforcement officers, can cite businesses that defy these orders; the penalty can include a misdemeanor charge.

Last Monday (April 27), Comfort welcomed clients back to her barbershop. The next day, instead of cutting hair, she pursued a Small Business Administration loan, established by the federal government for coronavirus-impacted businesses, and filed for unemployment benefits. Unable to secure either, she thought, Well, what am I supposed to do?

“So I got up my good-old American courage and decided [to] stay open,” Comfort said, resuming business Wednesday despite the prohibition.

“It’s not something I entered in[to] lightly,” she continued by phone Friday (May 1), after a busy day at the shop. “I have two children to take care of, and I have bills that were due. I’m not disparaging my landlords, but they need their money, too, because they’re going through economic crisis. …

“I’m more afraid of losing my car and my house than I am of Code Enforcement.”

Another barbershop in Chico, Gearhead, recently reopened but soon heard from the city and closed again. If the city contacts Eye Kandy Barbershop?

“It’s really hard,” Comfort said. “I don’t want to be on the record as saying I’m going to be defiant, but I have to do what’s best for me and my family.”

That pinch, plus the low incidence of coronavirus locally, has prompted business owners and business-oriented politicians to lobby for Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow commerce to resume fully in the North State.

Most prominently, Assemblyman James Gallagher and state Sen. Jim Nielsen wrote to Newsom requesting “to reopen the economies in our six counties under local orders.” All Butte County mayors except Chico’s Ann Schwab, as well as Board of Supervisors Chair Steve Lambert, co-signed the letter, dated April 24. Two of the counties—Sutter and Yuba—announced they plan to reopen anyway, on Monday (May 4), while Modoc County reopened Thursday (April 30).

Thursday, Newsom tweeted that “[California] is flattening the curve because folks are staying home. Practicing physical distancing. We aren’t out of the woods yet. We must continue to take this seriously and allow our re-opening to be guided by science and public health.”

Today, the governor announced he’ll allow certain retail sectors to reopen Friday (May 8) with limitations such as physical distancing and curbside pickup. Full guidelines for Phase 2 businesses—which don’t include salons and barbershops—will come Thursday.

Newsom also said he’ll give local officials more leeway in reopening further but that the state must certify those plans.

Local planning

Ahead of Newsom’s announcement, municipal and county leaders already had begun collaborating on detailed procedures for what the North State legislators brought straight to the governor without specifics: “a careful and phased reopening of our local economies.”

Chico City Manager Mark Orme told the CN&R by phone Friday that he and Schwab have joined their counterparts from Biggs, Gridley, Oroville and Paradise—plus Lambert, Supervisor Tami Ritter and County Chief Administrative Officer Shari McCracken—to “develop protocols” stemming first and foremost from county health officials.

“It’s the simple fact that we need to do the reopening logically and get buy-in from the governor in order to help expedite us moving forward,” Orme said. “I know that the governor is looking at that holistically; however, we think that we here locally can develop a plan that hopefully he can buy into.

“For those areas that have been extremely responsible—like Chico, like Butte County, like our region here—we’ve been able to effectively stall a huge increase in viral release, a going-from-one-person viral spread,” Orme added. “We’ve been able to stall that because of the attention we’ve given to social distancing, the attention we’ve given to the stay-at-home order.”

A new case of COVID-19 was reported in Butte County today, bringing the total to 17 cases—none of them fatal. Through April, 1,362 county residents were tested, but access has increased with on-site testing at Enloe Medical Center and, starting this week, a community testing site at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds set up by the state (visit www.buttecounty.net/publichealth for info).

By comparison, as of today, California had 56,089 of the nation’s 1.2 million cases and 2,283 of the 69,579 deaths from coronavirus. Those numbers put the U.S. rate of infection at 3,666 per million and California’s rate at 1,402 per million. Worldwide the disease has sickened around 3.6 million and killed over 250,000.

Lisa Almaguer, communications manager for Butte County Public Health, told the CN&R by email that the department is preparing the documentation, the “attestation needed to allow the [c]ounty to work at its own pace” toward reopening.

That said, she added: “Businesses who open before the order is modified and before they receive and implement the state’s guidelines place themselves, their employees and the community at greater risk for COVID-19. We thank all businesses for their patience and stand with the community to open as quickly and as safely as we can, as the data allows.”

Risky business

Communities across the nation made news last week with spikes in coronavirus cases as their states began letting businesses reopen. One case in point was Paris, Texas, in a rural county of 50,000 bordering Oklahoma, where the number of ill residents jumped from a half dozen to 65.

“For those entities looking to open back up again, without a proper plan in place, there’s a risk,” Orme said. “What we’re hoping is that people, whether they’re here locally or across the nation, will put in a responsible plan before they just start to open everything up again.”

The leadership group formulating the countywide plan, which convened last Wednesday (April 29), will draw on recommendations from a health care group comprising the CEOs of Enloe, Oroville Hospital and Orchard Hospital in Gridley; County Public Health Officer Andy Miller; County Public Health Director Danette York, and Public Health Epidemiologist Linda Lewis. Other groups, including business leaders, will provide input.

Schwab prefers this tack, a plan over an idea, and decided not to sign onto Gallagher and Nielsen’s letter.

“This process is moving quicker than any other government approach I’ve seen,” Schwab told the CN&R by email. “Our goal is to have an attestation plan to present to the governor, which balances personal and economic health, by the end of this week.

“Butte County residents have kept the number of COVID-19 cases in check by practicing social distancing, hand washing, and minimizing non-essential interactions. We want to continue to curb the spread of this pandemic while providing for people too get back to work.”

Comfort, too, gave careful consideration to her decision. Dual licensed as a barber and cosmetologist, she told the CN&R that she’s had extensive training in hygiene, particularly preventing the spread of bacteria and viruses. She’s taken extra measures: She works with only one other barber, Joey Mojica; limits the number of people in the shop; ensures everyone has a mask and washes their hands, and arrives an hour early to give the shop an extra cleansing.

“And when the virus thing goes away,” she added, “we’ll still be having the high standards of cleanliness and client safety because we already have had them in place for this part of our profession.”

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2 Comments

  1. I think it’s good that reopening businesses in Chico,CA is happening. I strongly approve of the social distancing and use of masks and gloves. Unfortunately, I’m not able to go out everyday, since I don’t own a car, so my only transportation is on the city’s buses and ParaTransit services. I would love to be able to help people out by talking to them in some way.

  2. Open business serving only customers wearing a mask and gloves , those not following this , totally denial service.

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