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Mall reopens as rural California counties defy virus order

Posted at 10:25 AM, May 07, 2020

Some businesses that reopened in two Northern California counties that defied the state’s stay-at-home order are not following safety requirements, and the area’s top health official said Wednesday it’s “imperative” they do to avoid a resurgence of coronavirus and return to stricter rules.

The local health order that took effect in Sutter and Yuba counties this week allowed diners in restaurants and opened far more retailers than the state approved. It’s the most permissive yet in the nation’s most populous state, but still requires employees and customers wear masks at indoor businesses.

The two counties of roughly 170,000 people have 50 confirmed cases and one hospitalization, per the public health officer.

On Wednesday, Sutter Yuba Mall became the first in California to reopen during the outbreak. Hundreds of shoppers — many not wearing masks — strolled through. A long line quickly formed at the nail salon, a business not allowed to open under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order.

A day earlier, Newsom said allowing so many businesses to reopen was a mistake and urged leaders to “do the right thing.”

On Wednesday, Yuba-Sutter Public Health Officer Dr. Phuong Luu did not change her order. But within hours of the mall opening, she sent a warning letter to the business community saying “it has become clear” many businesses were not complying with rules that also include surface cleaning, hand sanitizer and posted signs for customers.

“These were not suggestions,” Luu wrote. “It is imperative to make all necessary adjustments to the way we conduct business in our community immediately so that we do not run the risk of seeing a resurgence and need to go back to stricter orders.”

The mall reflected growing unrest among shuttered business owners and cooped-up residents weary of California’s coronavirus restrictions, which started March 19. And it is a test of how far the Newsom administration will go to enforce a mandatory stay-at-home order that, until recently, had been nearly universally accepted.

Newsom did not address the mall opening during his Wednesday news conference. Representatives from his office did not respond to a request for comment. But state regulators did contact a handful of businesses this week, threatening to withdraw their state licenses if they continued to defy Newsom’s order, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Donnie Walker, whose family runs Walker’s Wine and Brew House in Yuba County, told the newspaper state regulators visited on Tuesday and threatened to revoke the bar’s liquor license.

The governor has promised to loosen the stay-at-home order on Friday. New rules scheduled for Thursday release say which businesses can be open and under what conditions. He has said his plan will not allow for dine-in restaurants or hair or nail salons, but he has promised to negotiate with local governments on potential variances.

Across the state, desperate businesses are beginning to open anyway. Most but not all have avoided any government interference.

Spencer’s Cafe, with three locations in Bakersfield, opened after Kern County rescinded its health order. Many restaurant owners interpreted that move as allowing dine-in customers.

Spencer’s offered sit-down breakfast and lunch Tuesday before it was forced back to curbside pickup only.

“We didn’t even make it a full day,” said Lisa Trino, a manager. “We had tried, and the government said no.”

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand said some businesses could open Monday, including electronic and camera stores, furniture shops and auctions, The Fresno Bee reported.

In Los Angeles, county officials outlined a plan allowing some reopenings beginning Friday, provided safety precautions are taken. Golfers can hit the links again, and trails will be open with county employees on hand to remind people of social distancing rules, Board of Supervisors Chair Kathryn Barger said.

Some Los Angeles County retailers can reopen with curbside pickup only — including florists and stores that sell toys, books, clothing, sporting goods and music. The county, the state’s largest with 10 million residents, has accounted for over half California’s 2,500-plus virus deaths. Its new order still is among the strictest in California.

Yuba and Sutter counties allow in-store shopping and more businesses, including gyms and fitness studios, salons, spas and tattoo parlors, as well as libraries, playgrounds and non-contact school sports. Many retailers opened when the new order took effect Monday, but the Yuba Sutter Mall waited until Wednesday.

Mall General Manager Natasha Shelton said about 18 of the roughly 50 stores were open and estimated about 200 people were inside at noon. The mall reduced hours to allow for additional cleaning overnight. Food court tables were spaced 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart, and trays were banned.

At Journeys, a shoe and clothing store, a masked employee in gloves kept store capacity at 10 people.

There were some issues, including a line of women out the door at a nail salon. Shelton said she asked the owners to only take appointment to prevent a crowd.

Amanda Benjamin, 28, was looking for summer clothes for her almost 8-year-old son, who she said “shot up like a weed” during their weeks at home. She said Walmart has been sold out of her son’s size, forcing her to journey to the mall from Beale Air Force Base, where her husband is stationed. She brought her three children, all wearing masks.

“I don’t feel like we need to stay in our houses all the time,” she said. “We can figure out how to not spread the disease.”

Jenna Abruzzini brought her kids to the mall to support her aunt’s coffee shop. She and her sister stopped to let their kids jump on the “Bungee Blast” between stores, laughing as the kids squealed with delight.

“Oh my gosh, yes. Freedom,” Abruzzini said when asked if she was happy the mall reopened.

Neither Abruzzini nor her kids wore masks, but she said she felt safe.

“I feel good. I feel like we’re staying smart, doing our hand sanitizer, washing our hands, not licking shopping carts,” she said.