A pedestrian glances at the empty outdoor dining area of the Crepevine restaurant on Fourth Street in San Rafael on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
McNears Beach County Park in San Rafael was among the parks to close in Marin County on Sunday, March 22, 2020 to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
Preparations are underway for the next major step to reopening Marin.
Office space, outdoor retail sales, and coastal parks and beaches are slated to reopen June 1 in Marin, barring an increase in COVID-19 infection rates signaling increased spread of the coronavirus.
If the state permits, the county also is preparing to allow summer camps and outdoor restaurant dining beginning Monday. Gov. Gavin Newsom has not yet given the green light for these two activities, but Marin officials are hopeful it will come by the end of the month.
Marin County supervisors were briefed this week on the efforts of a consortium of local government officials and business leaders to develop guidelines for reopening with as little risk as possible.
“Our response to COVID-19 is not just solely focused on limiting transmission,” Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, told supervisors Tuesday, “because we know if that was our only goal we would simply remain locked down until a vaccine was developed. We do need to reopen.”
Max Korten, director of Marin parks and open space director who is helping to oversee the consortium, said, “Local businesses are at a really challenging point in terms of staying in business.”
While heartened by news, some members of the business community expressed frustration with the pace at which the reopening is moving.
“Dr. Willis did the best he could today to explain to us the risk,” Joanne Webster, president of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, commented at Tuesday’s meeting, “however, every day I get calls and emails from our businesses that don’t understand why we can’t reopen for indoor retail.”
Gov. Newsom has given the green light for counties in California to begin allowing in-store shopping if they deem it appropriate.
Webster also asked why big box retailers in Marin, such as Costco and Target, have been allowed to remain open throughout the “shelter-in-place” order.
County Administrator Matthew Hymel said certain big box stores were allowed to stay open because a significant proportion of their stock and services was deemed to be essential. For example, the Target in San Rafael has a pharmacy and an automated teller machine in addition to selling groceries.
In some parts of the country, however, local communities have begun to limit the variety of nonessential items that big box stores may sell in an effort to reduce traffic in the stores and provide a more level playing field for smaller retailers.
Willis said while the governor has given counties permission to allow in-store retail to reopen, he has also made it clear that counties need to make their own decisions based on the rate of spread in their communities.
“The core Bay Area of California is one of the hot spots nationally for COVID-19 and has been from the start,” Willis said. “Our incidence in Marin County is the 16th highest of any county in the state; we have the ninth highest overall death rate. Our decision making has to be based on that reality.”
In fact, the total number of Marin residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 increased more than 50% over the past two weeks. Willis is allowing the reopening to proceed nonetheless because he suspects the increase is due to increased testing in communities where essential workers at high risk of contracting the disease reside.
Willis made it clear, however, that he won’t hesitate to slam on the brakes if new data emerges indicating a threatening increase in the spread of the virus.
He also said that because of the way the virus spreads — through droplets when people sneeze, cough or even breath into the air — activities conducted indoors are significantly riskier than those conducted outside, where the ventilation is better.
Webster said restaurant owners around the county are getting ready in case the county gives the green light for outdoor dining on Monday. She said some are working with municipal public works departments to see if they can use public space for outdoor tables.
“It’s what I’m praying for every night,” said Robert Wellbeloved, owner of the Magnolia Park Kitchen in San Rafael, regarding the outdoor dining approval. “We’re right here on Courthouse Square so with this weather we are anticipating being able to bring all our tables out into the courtyard.”
David Haydon, owner of Il Davide in San Rafael, said he has purchased additional tables and heat lamps in preparation. His restaurant has a patio and he said there is adjacent space on the street he can put to use.
“I’m investing in this,” Haydon said, “thinking it is going to be the new normal for a while until people feel it’s safe to go inside a restaurant again.”
When businesses reopen they must develop a COVID-19 protection plan specifically designed for their operation and post it near their entrance where employees and customers can easily review it. The county has made a template for developing a plan available on the Marin Recovers.com website.
The Marin Recovers consortium is developing detailed guidelines for numerous business sectors. The guidelines, which are also being posted on the website as they’re completed, can then be incorporated into the template.
For example, the guidelines for operating summer camps requires children over the age of 2 to wear face coverings when not actively engaged in physical activity and camp operators to sanitize sink and toilet handles before and after each child’s use.
The site-specific protection plan template includes a long list of requirements including sanitizing all shared equipment and touchable surfaces between each use.
“It’s going to be tough to do all that,” Haydon said. “It’s not rocket science but it’s going to take a little bit longer.”