SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz County health leaders said home shelter orders could be loosened on May 4, including lifting bans on construction, landscaping and outdoor activities such as golf. Separately, bans on surfing and beachcombing and visiting parks are expected to expire Thursday morning. 

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“We’re hoping to come up with a regional approach for our next shelter-in-place orders,”said Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel. Decisions will be made up to May 3 with guidance from other Bay Area counties and the state, Dr. Newel said.

“The actual disease curve that we’re seeing in the actual number of cases has flattened dramatically since we started our shelter-in-place order,” said Santa Cruz County Health Services Director Mimi Hall. “The data now shows us that when we start rising, that curve will look more like mid-May.”

There were 91 confirmed COVID-19 cases from 2,431 tests in Santa Cruz County as of Tuesday, according to county figures. The county also announced its second death from the virus – a man in his late 60s who also had a cardiovascular disease, Newel said. 

UC Santa Cruz leaders said he was a bus driver on campus who tested positive April 11. 

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county are the key measure that helps determine shelter order plans, county health leaders have said. Here are the recent figures. 

  • 9 hospitalized on April 1
  • 14 hospitalized on April 8
  • 13 hospitalized on April 9 and 10
  • 15 hospitalized on April 11
  • 16 hospitalized on April 12 and 13

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County models show the worst-case scenario is 40 new hospitalizations per day starting May 1. The best-case scenario is about 12 new hospitalizations per day, according to a chart Hall showed at Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting.  

A model of the best- and worst-case scenarios of new COVID-19 hospitalizations in Santa Cruz County were shown at Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting. (Santa Cruz County – Contributed)

At a news conference Thursday, county health officials said the maximum number of intensive care beds the county can expand to is about 50. The projections shared Tuesday do not distinguish between intensive care beds and lower-level care beds needed.

Newel and state leaders said Tuesday that the shelter order could loosen May 4 and later revert to stricter orders later if cases or hospitalizations rise. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a news conference Tuesday, described shelter orders not as a light switch that turns on or off, but rather as a dimmer. 

Newsom said they state could be, “toggling back and forth between more restrictive and less restrictive measures, more individual accountability, more individual responsibility as it relates to face coverings as it relates to practicing physical distancing.” 

Santa Cruz County’s shelter order helped slow the pace of new COVID-19 cases, county leaders said. (Santa Cruz County — Contributed)

The state’s “phase one” goal is to be able to have tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests daily, Newsom said. That capacity is expected in the next few weeks, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California’s Health and Human Services Agency. 

“I think once we hit that level and we know that individuals who have symptoms can get tested and the results available rapidly, we’ll be able to think about modifying these orders,” Ghaly said at a news conference Tuesday. 

Santa Cruz County has a roughly eight-day doubling of new COVID-19 cases, which is lower than some other counties, officials said. (Santa Cruz County – Contributed)

Santa Cruz County leaders said more businesses could reopen May 4 not so much depending on the type of business, but rather what measures have been put in place to distance and protect people. Hall said she could “imagine” that classrooms, businesses or activities with perhaps 12 people or fewer could resume with new distance and cleaning rules. 

“It’s less about a sport or a certain kind of business – more about the practices that those areas of business are willing to engage in,” Hall said. 

Specific shelter orders are up to each of the state’s counties, Newsom said. Hall said the following factors would be considered in revised shelter orders:

  1. Sufficient testing so every person with symptoms is tested. Hall said three new sites in the county will provide tests starting this week.
  2. Sufficient personal protective equipment for health care workers. Hall said supplies are expected from state and federal governments, but the county is a “long way” from the recommended 30-day supply. 
  3. Steady or decreasing levels of cases and deaths for 14 days. This has not yet happened. 
  4. The ability for county epidemiologists to track every positive case. Hall said county health workers now work double shifts to investigate cases, but they need a longer-term solution.

State leaders said the following six questions would guide its decision to modify its shelter order. 

  1. Can the state monitor and protect people with COVID-19 testing?
  2. Are the medically vulnerable – including seniors and the incarcerated – supported enough to physically distance?
  3. Can hospitals handle surges in patients? Do hospitals have enough bed capacity, staff and supplies?
  4. Do people have access to medicine to recover outside a hospital?
  5. Can businesses, schools and childcare centers support physical distancing? 
  6. Can modified shelter orders be communicated quickly? 

The shelter order has taken a toll on workers and business owners in Santa Cruz County. 

There were 137 new unemployment claims in the county the week of Feb. 13. The week of March 29, there were 8,359 new claims, county officials said. 

“It’s sobering when you see the information that we’re sharing today about the number of people who’ve applied for unemployment, and the increased needs for just food out in our community,” County Supervisor John Leopold said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting. 

“I appreciate the work that’s going on to help make that happen. I know we’re going to need more of that in the coming weeks.” 

Asked what she would tell business owners and workers about their hardships because of the shelter order, Newel said, “We hear them. We see them. We know that they’re hurting and all of their employees.” 

She added, “We’re taking all of that into consideration as we make our very difficult decisions.” 

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Stephen Baxter is a co-founder and editor of Santa Cruz Local. He covers Santa Cruz County government.