Healthy outlook

Full reopening prompts cautious optimism about medical impact

Chico’s Saturday Farmers Market draws a mixed response, during the noon hour May 22, to its request that patrons wear face coverings. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

This feature is part of the CN&R’s June 2021 Business Issue.

Brandon Keith has deep roots at Madison Bear Garden. Fifteen years ago, he worked in the kitchen, in view of customers who ordered burgers and fries from a window overlooking the grills before heading to the bar to get drinks. The Bear has long been an up close and personal business—much like its sister restaurant Mom’s, catty-corner across Salem and West Second streets.

COVID-19 changed that. Upon reopening after last spring’s shutdown, the Bear made adjustments beyond the prescriptions laid out by Butte County and state officials for hygiene and seating. Patrons placed food and drink orders with a bartender separated from them by a plexiglass shield. Facemasked servers brought food to tables outside. A cordon of other tables for to-go orders and delivery services kept visitors distanced from the kitchen window.

The restaurant relaxed some of the stricter measures as the county moved through the tier system: Diners once again claim their meals from the kitchen crew and no longer must follow a defined path to minimize contact with others. Other measures remain, such as one-stop ordering at the bar and heightened sanitation. Keith—chief financial officer for the Bear and Mom’s the past 10 years—said these and modifications including touchless mobile pay are now ingrained.

“We’re going to continue as we have since March of 2020 to follow the local health officials, the state health officials and the federal health mandates,” Keith said. “Some of the things [both restaurants changed] have been for the better.”

Brandon Keith, chief financial officer of Madison Bear Garden and Mom’s, says the Bear in particular has adapted its front-of-house operations to meet COVID-safety protocols. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

When state officials allow the economy to fully reopen June 15, restaurants and other businesses anticipate essentially taking the COVID-safety practices they’ve employed for months to a larger scale. As of yet, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has not radically changed requirements (see info at bottom of story); nor has Butte County Public Health, which by policy takes its cues from CDPH and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cal/OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is expected to release revised COVID-19 protocols for workplaces in the next few days. Local health officials approach the reopening with cautious optimism.

“As things open up, I encourage people to get out there and enjoy themselves and see people they haven’t been able to see or congregate with for a while,” County Public Health Director Danette York told the CN&R by phone. “But be careful about it and don’t go to the extremes. If you’re going to be in a crowd, wear your face coverings—even if you’re vaccinated, take that extra precaution—and keep your social distancing going…. We want to not revert back and have another surge. Protect yourself and your community by doing those mitigations.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom made his order for reopening the economy contingent on vaccination access, COVID cases and hospitalization rates. As of May 29, before Memorial weekend, Butte County had 12,017 residents contract coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, 189 of whom died, including a young adult last week. Public Health reported 434 new cases in 30 days, on par with the previous 30 days’ total (437).

Dr. Marcia Nelson, family practice physician and Enloe Medical Center’s vice president of medical affairs, says vaccination is key for this reopening. (CN&R file photo)

The county had ranked among the state’s top 10 in vaccination rates early this year but, after that initial rush, slipped to bottom half. Approximately a third of Butte County residents are fully vaccinated and just under 40 percent have gotten one dose.

That number may be well short of the population projection for communal protection known as herd immunity (see “Shot at normalcy?”), which is generally accepted as around 75 percent. However, having anyone vaccinated represents a key difference from previous attempts at reopening, when subsequent surges led state officials to reimpose restrictions.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but that all depends on how people embrace getting COVID vaccines,” said Dr. Marcia Nelson, a family practice physician in Chico and Enloe Medical Center’s vice president of medical affairs. “The COVID vaccines have proven to be extraordinarily effective; they’re also very, very safe.

“We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our community—we owe it to the people that we love—to get our vaccines.”

Seeking clarity

The biggest health-related concern for restaurants and retailers has been uncertainty. The Bear’s Keith, and Katy Thoma, president/CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, both said that businesses have found themselves on shifting sands due to fast-issued updates. They feel more confident approaching June 15, with the caveat of the past year.

“I think now it’s pretty clear nothing is going to change until June 15,” Thoma said by phone, “but that’s a few weeks. We’re not sure of anything. But I don’t think things are going to change all that much operationally.”

With the chamber serving as a conduit of information from Public Health to businesses, Thoma has kept current on the regulations and in contact with business owners. She’s had no significant revisions to communicate in months, she said, and local establishments have relayed few concerns ahead of the reopening.

Keith anticipates questions about face coverings in particular, since California, including Butte County, continued the face-covering mandate after the CDC relaxed its recommendation last month. (Check buttecounty.net/publichealth/buttereopens for the latest.)

“We’ve experienced confusion, depending on the customer, the last 15-plus months,” Keith said. “That’s nobody’s fault other than there’s changing information daily. So, I would expect that there will continue to be confusion; our goal is just to communicate to our employees and to our guests, as nicely as possible and as clearly as possible, what the current operating environment is.”

Like other downtown Chico restaurants during the pandemic, Madison Bear Garden moved some seating to open-air parklets set up behind traffic barricades, supplementing patio tables.

Worse than confusion, though, is reversion. Keith said he hopes the June 15 reopening sticks—that there isn’t another shutdown or constriction. “Those experiences are more painful,” he added, “starting and stopping.”

Health officials obviously want to avoid that dire condition as well. Dr. Linda Lewis, Butte County Public Health’s epidemiologist, told the CN&R that she’s concerned about the impacts of another surge.

“The more cases we have, the more likely we’re going to have variants emerge that may be more difficult to deal with,” she said, “and the more likely we are to lose people.”

Nelson said Enloe already has surge scenarios in place and, come the reopening, patients at the hospital and its clinics should notice no difference in procedures. She also noted that surges have tended to follow two weeks from broad exposure, such as a holiday. She’d already marked her mental calendar to check case numbers after Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July—now she’s adding June 15 to her list.

“It’s like you’re standing at the ocean watching the waves come in,” Nelson said, adding: “We can do it right or we can do it wrong, this reopening. Doing it right means getting our vaccines—otherwise we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable and running the risk of spreading serious, often lethal illness to people we care about. So we can do it right or we can do it wrong.”

New ‘rules’:
The California Department of Public Health has established the following framework for the June 15 reopening:
-Capacity—no restrictions
-Physical distancing—no minimums
-Face coverings—as set by CDPH and CDC guidelines
-Vaccine/COVID-negative verification—mandatory for indoor mega events (5,000+), recommended for outdoor mega events (10,000+)

Go to cdph.ca.gov for more information.

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