Del Norte County has advanced to the red tier of COVID-19 restrictions, the state announced Tuesday.
The change in tier comes with a loosening of some restrictions as a result of declines in the county’s case rate. Del Norte County is one of just five across the state not under purple-level restrictions, the highest level of the state’s framework.
“It’s good news. It’s very good news,” Dr. Warren Rehwaldt, the county’s public health officer, told the board of supervisors during its meeting Tuesday.
Among other changes, the key difference in the restrictions comes for restaurants, which will be allowed to reopen to 25% of their indoor capacity.
“Well the list of impacted businesses is pretty long,” Rehwaldt said. “I think the ones that come to mind the most are our restaurants, though, because they were forced to go to outside operations only, which we all know is not really feasible in Del Norte County in January and February.”
Under state rules, the new restrictions mean:
- Gyms and fitness centers will be allowed to reopen indoors to 10% capacity.
- Movie theaters will be allowed to reopen indoors to 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less.
- Museums, zoos and aquariums will be allowed to reopen indoors to 25% capacity.
- Restaurants will be allowed to reopen to indoor dining up to 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less.
- Retail stores can increase to 50% capacity, and grocery stores have no virus-related capacity restrictions.
A complete list of the county’s restrictions is available on the state’s website at covid19.ca.gov.
Entry into the red tier also means students will be able to return to the campus of Del Norte High School, according to Superintendent Jeff Harris.
Students will return to campus starting Feb. 16, after a five-day waiting period and the President’s Day holiday, and should be allowed to remain in-person regardless the county’s tier status in the future, Harris said.
“From our perspective, it’s pretty set in stone,” Harris said. “On Tuesday, once we bring our students back, we are good to go.”
According to Harris, bringing students back to campus will be a big win. For many students, the current distance-learning only model “is just not working” academically, Harris said.
Going back to campus means those students will have consistent instruction from teachers and time to interact with peers. It’ll also be a plus for mental health.
“At this point, one of the more concerning sides is the social-emotional piece,” Harris said. “A lot of supports I think we took for granted when we were in school, our kids have lived without for the better part of a year.”
Giving students time to be in person and see friends and teachers can chip away at the level of depression, anxiety and other serious worries students have been reporting, Harris said.
Still, the partial-day return to campus isn’t the end goal.
“I truly wish we could have every child back every day for a full day,” Harris said.
The district is still subject to state restrictions requiring a certain amount of classroom space per student. And while the district hasn’t reported any student-to-student spread, Harris said taking virus precautions like wearing face masks and avoiding gatherings is essential to avoid having to quarantine groups of students exposed to the virus.
“The last thing we want to have happen is to close a class or cohort of students,” Harris said.
Slowing cases and a slow trickle of vaccines
The county’s tier change comes as the county has reported decreases in new COVID-19 cases, with daily case totals consistently in the low-single digits over the past two weeks.
“We have seen some gradual decline in our case numbers. We had a little bit of a bump towards the end of the week last week — we don’t know what that portends. And I guess I should be cautious, cautiously optimistic, because we had Super Bowl Sunday,” Rehwaldt said. “Hopefully it won’t have a big impact.”
The gradual decline is a good sign, Rehwaldt said.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” he said “Things are moving in a good direction, I don’t have a lot of concerns at the moment.”
According to Rehwaldt, the county could see the impacts of new strains of the virus in the coming months, too, indicating that public health precautions and vaccinations remain necessary.
“I guess the biggest concern is the impact of the variant strain of the virus that we keep hearing about, and when and if they reach us — eventually they will — how much of an impact they’ll have on our local operational picture remains to be seen,” Rehwaldt told the board of supervisors.
What’s more, Rehwaldt told supervisors the county’s vaccine dose supply is largely tapped out until it receives additional shipments of doses. Most of the county’s remaining doses on hand are reserved for providing second doses to those who’ve already received their first from the county or from a primary care office.
The county vaccinated about 300 people last weekend in a drive-through event, but Rehwaldt said those kinds of events will only be available when the county gets enough supply of the vaccine.
“We have a few targeted groups that we are doing second doses of in the interim, but until our vaccine supply improves, it’s not very expandable,” Rehwaldt said. “We can’t scale it up yet, it will depend on the supply improving.”
As of Tuesday, state data showed Del Norte County has administered over 2,200 doses of the two-shot vaccine.
For now, county health officials are waiting to see if they’ll receive additional vaccine doses before being able to scale up their vaccination efforts.
“If we can’t predict what we’re going to get, there’s going to be starts and stops,” Rehwaldt said. “And right now we’re in a stop mode.”