Viral resistance

County’s return to tighter coronavirus restrictions draws pushback from some businesses; enforcement changes not imminent

Erik Twist, owner of Sub Station since 2002, is wary of state coronavirus measures. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

Like most local business owners, Erik Twist has had a tough 2020. He’s operated Sub Station, the venerable sandwich shop in south Chico, for 18 years—but says he came within weeks of closing for good when coronavirus restrictions, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-home order in the spring, cut business in half. As Butte County ebbed out of the state’s most restrictive tier, customers returned, jamming the six-indoor-table eatery during lunch rushes.

Still, Twist remained concerned. He saw his future and the livelihood of his employees threatened, and focused his frustration on government officials, Newsom in particular. He joined the Facebook group “Citizens for Opening Chico/Butte County” where others vented their concerns about the state’s measures. And on Nov. 17, the day after Butte County returned to the most restrictive tier, he posted a call to fellow Chico business owners to “organize and become a louder single voice to local and state agencies and refute this shutdown!”

The tightest tier—labeled with the color code purple—indicates a county where coronavirus is “widespread”: meaning at least seven new cases per day per 100,000 population in a seven-day period and 8 percent positive test rate. For this recent jump, Butte County leapfrogged from orange (“moderate”) past red (“substantial”). As of today (Nov. 30), Butte County had recorded 4,131 coronavirus cases and 60 deaths—with 630 new cases reported since Nov. 17.

Purple-tier restrictions include closing bars and indoor entertainment venues, limiting capacity to 25 percent for retailers and allowing only delivery or take-out from restaurants.

The latter, obviously, affects Twist in the food service sector. The Facebook group lists a host of restaurants that are staying open despite the order. During a recent Saturday lunch hour (Nov. 21), Sub Station had four indoor tables open, two blocked off, and patrons—some masked, many not—availed themselves of the eating spaces.

City and county officials told the CN&R that local enforcement priorities have not changed since spring, when education trumped citations. In fact, both Chico Police Chief Matt Madden and Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea released statements that they would not pursue violators of the nightly curfew, 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., that went into effect last week. State agencies have taken more aggressive action, such as Alcoholic Beverage Control officers pulling liquor licenses from establishments violating public health orders.

“When the doors are open, we have our masks on, we sanitize our tables, I respect someone who wants to wear a mask, I respect the people who say, ‘I don’t want to come in your store, can you do outside delivery, I’m in your parking lot,’” Twist said. “I happily do that; I appreciate that business.

“What I don’t want to [do] is blindly say that I agree with this without having it go through a representative process and have a wider base of people in our elected representatives flesh this one out.”

Twist, who came to Chico from the Bay Area after the dot-com bubble burst, considers himself “a centrist” in accepting the public health concern. Twist doesn’t subscribe to “those ridiculous theories” that the state’s coronavirus response “is a conspiracy, that Newsom’s doing a power grab, that the virus is fake.” By the same token, he agrees with North State Republicans and conservative City Council members, that “we are going to hurt local economies, local businesses, local people at the expense of this. That’s why I put that post up in the first place.”

Twist’s Facebook post drew 984 “likes” and 316 comments. Virtually all echoed his stance; many expressed stronger opposition. Restaurateurs, beauticians and gym owners all pledged to keep their businesses open regardless of mandates.

‘Serious whiplash’

Local officials anticipated pushback when Butte County returned to the most restrictive tier. Last Monday’s announcement collided with what Katy Thoma, CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, calls “COVID fatigue.” It came almost exactly eight months to the day Newsom issued his first coronavirus order, March 19.

The chamber has fielded inquiries from members with various perspectives on coronavirus measures, but overwhelmingly, “people are frustrated,” she said by phone.

“The degree of frustration comes in that the rules keep changing,” Thoma added. “This time around, Butte County had anticipated being called out on [a] Tuesday that we were going to the red tier, effective [that] Friday, and then we find out [that Monday] that we are effectively in the purple tier at noon.

“That was a serious whiplash.”

The move even surprised Butte County Public Health. Director Danette York told the CN&R by phone that her department expected what Thoma said, a shift to the red tier. However, York added, the purple designation was appropriate—and with how county case numbers had been, and are, increasing, Butte “would have [gone] to purple anyway; it just would have been a week or two later.”

York has observed a growing number of residents, business owners included, becoming more lax about and less accepting of state orders as well as preventative measures promoted by Public Health such as face coverings, hand washing and social distancing.

“There’s a group of people who are extremely weary of [COVID] and want to move on, or just simply don’t believe in it and think it’s just another virus and we should be able to move on,” York said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I want to be respectful of that—but the state and the county have a job to do, to try to protect the public’s health, and they’re doing that the best way they can by following the science of the CDC and us [in the county] following the guidance of the California Department of Public Health.”

Coronavirus cases have surged statewide. As of today, CDPH has tracked 1.21 million cases and 19,141 deaths in California, which has a population just under 40 million. Newsom instituted the nightly stay-home order on top of the tiered restrictions in advance of Thanksgiving weekend, which public health officials expect to contribute to a spike in numbers in the coming weeks. In fact, Newsom announced today that he’s considering stricter stay-home orders as hospitalizations already have increased 89 percent over the past 14 days and the state may reach intensive-care capacity before Christmas.

The county continues to take an “education first” approach to enforcement, York said: “educate and bring people into compliance.” That’s also Chico’s approach, City Manager Mark Orme told the CN&R by phone. City Code Enforcement officers respond to complaint calls and inform businesses what they need to do to avoid violations.

“I don’t see a lot of change from how we’ve conducted the work,” Orme said, “because our team has done a tremendous job and they’re going to continue to do that.”

Not all businesses, nor customers, are resisting the return of more stringent coronavirus measures. The Facebook group “Covid Responsible Places – Chico” keeps a running list of eateries compliant with the governor’s indoor-dining orders—a counterpoint, of sorts, to the other group’s listings. The Responsible Places group has 2,800 followers compared to 6,400 members of Citizens for Opening Chico/Butte County.

Twist and Thoma both indicated that business owners are taking stock individually. Those with liquor licenses put themselves in more serious jeopardy by defying orders, since the state already has demonstrated it will sanction such establishments. Overall, they consider the balance of economic health with public health.

“In order for us to move along,” Thoma said, “if people will just buckle down for a couple weeks, adhere to the guidelines, we can get our numbers down and go back to orange.”

Butte was one of the first two counties given dispensation by Newsom to open more widely in May, Thoma added—“that’s not something to forget about. We can do it, if folks would adhere to the guidelines.”

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