Counties defying state coronavirus 'stay-at-home' orders and reopening for business

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As unrest continues to mount over stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, some counties and towns are taking matters into their own hands by bucking their governors' edicts and reopening segments of their economies.

In California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has faced protests from Huntington Beach to Sacramento over his statewide restrictions on nonessential businesses and outdoor activities, three counties in the northern part of the state are defying the orders and opening up.

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Modoc County – a rural, conservative area near California’s border with Oregon – was the first to defy Newsom’s restrictions by announcing that it would allow bars, restaurants and churches to reopen last Friday. The small community of about 9,600 people has so far reported zero cases of COVID-19.

Officials in Modoc County argue that they are not outright flouting Newsom’s orders, but instead are working with Sacramento and have even submitted a plan to the state public health officer.

Modoc County Sherriff Tex Dowdy said residents must still adhere to social distancing guidelines, avoid mass gatherings and stay home if they feel sick. He added that the county’s Emergency Operations Center will remain open and that county officials will continue to monitor the coronavirus pandemic.

“We needed to put out some guidelines,” Dowdy told a local news station. “Businesses were going to start opening with or without our blessing and we needed to ensure the health and safety of our community.”

Two other counties – Yuba and Sutter – followed Modoc’s lead and announced Friday that they would begin reopening certain businesses on Monday.

“COVID-19 is dangerous and scary but it is not the only health issue,” Phuong Luu, who serves as the health officer for the two adjacent counties, said in a press release. “We cannot wait for a vaccine without seeing extreme economic damage done to our community. The consequences of waiting will be additional health concerns brought on by stress and the very real dilemma for those with limited resources whether to buy life-saving food or life-saving medicines.”

Under the new orders, restaurants, retail operations, shopping malls, construction, real estate, agriculture, gyms and fitness studios, hair salons and barbershops, nail salons, spas, massage therapy centers and tattoo parlors are all allowed to reopen provided they follow certain social distancing guidelines. Schools, churches and other places of worship, and theaters, however, will remain closed.

“Our residents have done a good job reducing the rate of new cases through social distancing, and that has allowed us to reach the next phase, but we cannot go from zero to 100 percent opening up right away,” Luu added. “We must have a gradual reopening, one that is phased in, one that is evidence-based, risk-stratified, and grounded in science.”

Unlike Modoc, Yuba and Sutter are fairly large counties – totaling around 170,000 residents – and each has reported dozens of COVID-19 cases. They also border Sacramento County and are about a 15-mile drive to downtown Sacramento.

Newsom’s shelter-at-home mandate is a statewide order, but it is unclear what actions – if any – the governor will or could take against the counties going rogue.

California is not the only state, however, to see local jurisdictions go their own way on reopening.

Last month, a commission in Franklin County in southcentral Washington state declared Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home” order unconstitutional and ordered the reopening of businesses across the county. As of Monday, the county has had 363 cases of the novel coronavirus with 11 deaths.

Following criticism from Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the commissioners in the county quickly rescinded the order, saying the execution of the effort wasn’t perfect.

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“It brings us to a point today where it’s appropriate for the board to consider rescinding that resolution passed on Tuesday,” Commissioner Brad Peck told local media. “Further actions will be done in more careful contemplation with our legal counsel.”

In Arizona, sheriffs in two counties have said that they will not enforce Gov. Doug Ducey's stay-at-home orders.

Sheriffs in Mohave County, which sits in the northwest of the state near Las Vegas, and Pinal County, between the urban centers of Phoenix and Tucson, said they will not arrest or hand out fines to those violating the stay-at-home order.

“My conscience will not allow me to arrest someone who is trying to make a living,” Schuster told the Arizona Republic. “I don’t believe it is a crime to try and make a living.”

“I don’t think, for the most part, people want to be defying [the order],” Schuster added. “They’re trying to do what’s best for their families.”

Maricopa County, which sits north of Pinal County and is home to Phoenix, has recorded more than 4,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 147 deaths.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.