Orange County Bans Nearly All Public Gatherings

SANTA ANA (CNS) - Orange County's chief health officer banned nearly all social gatherings and events today in a sweeping response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Nichole Quick unveiled the plan during an emergency meeting of the county Board of Supervisors, saying she felt it was necessary to prohibit all gatherings and community events, and she recommended that all seniors ``stay home.''

The ``prohibition applies to all professional, social, and community gatherings, regardless of their sponsor, that are not engaged in essential activities,'' according to the order, which is in place until 11:59 p.m. on March 31.

``Essential activities'' include those involving government work, healthcare, first responders to emergencies, grocery stores and other businesses that sell necessities. It also includes news media services, other professionals such as plumbers, banks, transportation companies.

Childcare companies are mostly exempted, but services ``must be carried out in stable groups,'' and the ``children shall not change from one group to another.''

Groups of children should be separated in different rooms and should not mix with one another and their supervisors must remain with only one group.

Among other things, the order prohibits dine-in service at restaurants, leaving them open to pickup and delivery, and also closes down bars that do not serve food.

Similar restaurant and bar closure orders have already been issued in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties.

Food services for the needy must be ``pick up only.''

Orange County CEO Frank Kim said his office is working with officials in the grocery industry to issue a public statement assuring residents there is no issue with the food supply and no one should feel like they need to stock up on food.

Quick has the legal authority to issue the orders regulating restaurant and bar operations, and the mandate could be enforced by a fine or even criminal prosecution.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett noted that some bars and restaurants were still holding St. Patrick's Day festivities on Tuesday, ``so putting this in effect today is critical.''

Supervisor Don Wagner questioned whether a closure of restaurants for dine-in business would lead some residents to panic that grocery stores will be closed next.

Supervisor Andrew Do responded that ``transitory'' contact in stores is less risky than longer contact in enclosed spaces such as restaurants.

``What we do know is how it is transmitted -- it's person to person, so there's an effort to reduce person-to-person contact as much as possible,'' Orange County Health Care Agency Director Richard Sanchez said. ``But we still need utilities and water... I hear what you're saying, but I do believe the effort you're seeing at federal and state level goes to that exact concept.''

Board Chairwoman Michelle Steel asked, ``How are we going to help those people financially,'' who work in service industries such as restaurants and other small businesses.

``This is going to be really impacting so many business people in Orange County,'' she said.

Sanchez said, ``This is no longer just a healthcare issue,'' and added that county officials must focus on myriad issues,. including how to help businesses get through the pandemic and how to deliver other government services to residents.

Health officials said they have enough test kits to handle high- priority cases. So far, 300 people have been tested with 22 being diagnosed with the coronavirus in Orange County. Kim said three are hospitalized.

The county has enough supplies to test 1,075 people. Sanchez said the county has requested more test kits, but he noted they're in a long line with every other county in the country requesting test kits.

But county officials do not know how many test kits private health care providers have. Anyone with ``mild illness'' is being advised to ``stay home until you're better and not seek testing,'' Quick said.

Call the doctor first instead of showing up, Quick said. A primary care physician can direct someone to get testing.

County officials were unaware of any drive-through testing sites, which essentially serve as ``specimen collection'' points where patients provide samples that are sent to a laboratory. One is operating in Yorba Linda, but officials were not aware of it.

Do prodded Quick to push health care providers to provide information on how many test kits they have available and where drive-through collection sites are being established.

Health care providers are required by law to alert county officials when a test is positive for the virus, Sanchez said.

``We are under a declaration of emergency so Dr. Quick has more police power than under normal circumstances,'' Do said.

Bartlett emphasized that under the county's emergency declaration, small businesses can apply for loans from the federal government with 3.75% rates and 2.5% rates for nonprofits. They can be payable back in 30 years, she added.

``It's all well and good to get the loan, but if you don't have any income to service the debt the loan won't do you any good,'' Wagner said, adding that ``all needs (of businesses) need to be addressed at the appropriate time.''

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he has been in discussions with law enforcement on cracking down on price gouging during the emergency. Jacking up prices on necessities such as flashlights, batteries and water is against the law, Spitzer said.

``As much as we would like to not create panic, we have to understand there's a lot of panic out there,'' Spitzer said. ``That's going to be inevitable, but we are ready, willing and able to prosecute anyone who crosses over the line.''

Spitzer said law enforcement is on the alert for break-ins at closed businesses.

Spitzer said discussions are ongoing to take care of constitutionally required legal proceedings in court for more violent crimes while the county's courthouses are closed.

``No one is going to be let out of jail, who has committed a serious violent crime,'' Spitzer said.

The county's top prosecutor, however, said he was concerned about criminal crackdowns on restaurants or bars.

``Are we going to rush in with billy clubs and riot gear, and am I going to be prosecuting 30 people in the next two days?'' Spitzer asked. ``I don't want to see that happen,'' he said. ``That would be horrible. We should have a much bigger conservation about that.''

Do replied, ``This is not the venue to discuss this. I don't want to put out the optic that we're not serious. This is not the time.''

Spitzer said there were civil and licensing ``remedies for violations. There doesn't have to be incarceration.''

Do said, ``Nobody said there would be incarceration in every case.''

Wagner said, ``Discretion is always open to our prosecutors.''

Do said after the meeting that county officials were ``everything with our power and control to help the public and stem the spread of this disease.''

Do rejected suggestions from critics that he and Steel were ``milking this for publicity.'' He added, ``Those statements are baseless.''

Spitzer told the supervisors that they and the county staff were ``doing an amazing job... Don't even think for one second about the criticism out there.''

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Orange announced Tuesday that all daily and Sunday masses are temporarily canceled, but churches will remain open for parishioners who wish to pray and seek ``spiritual guidance.'' In the meantime, Sunday masses may be viewed live-streamed on

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