Lassen County, a county of 30,000 people in the far reaches of Northern California, was one of the first places in the state to reopen in early May. But this week, it became the first to reverse course because of a resulting coronavirus outbreak.

The county’s public health officer, Dr. Kenneth Korver, announced the decision on Tuesday after confirming the county’s first four cases of COVID-19. 

“While Lassen County had no confirmed cases for the past three months,
we were fully aware of the risk that the virus could come to our community,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, this did happen and we now have a serious problem.”

Lassen County began reopening with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s blessing in early May, far sooner than the state’s denser communities could even consider. In the weeks that followed, the county opened retail stores, restaurant dining rooms, shopping malls and other businesses.

Now, businesses in Lassen County may only operate curbside pickup and delivery services, and the county won’t proceed with opening salons and places of worship, which most California counties just got Newsom’s approval to do. 

Earlier this month, before Newsom gave Lassen County the go-ahead to reopen, lawmakers from the area complained there shouldn’t be a “one size fits all” policy for ending social distancing orders and argued that small communities without coronavirus cases should be able to reopen sooner.

“We’re not like Los Angeles or San Francisco. Let’s get back to cooler heads,” Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle, who represents the county, said at the time. “Let the people free.”

Lassen County’s recent outbreak is testing that thinking. County officials are hoping they can contain the virus before it spreads any further and are planning to use contact tracing to track transmission. Korver said it’s his “intention for this to be a very temporary situation.”

The same day Lassen County announced it was scaling back reopenings, the public health officer in California’s Santa Clara County warned that she thought the state was reopening too quickly. 

“The state modifications are being made without a real understanding of the consequences of what the last move has been,” the health officer, Dr. Sara Cody, said at a Board of Supervisors meeting. Not taking time to evaluate the safety of social distancing modifications, she continued, risks “an exponential growth in cases, and therefore a risk to social and economic wellbeing.”

Cody’s remarks came after Newsom gave counties permission to reopen salons and resume some gatherings of up to 100 people. However, county officials are allowed to make their own rules stricter than state-level ones. 

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