Education · Fresno · Highlight

Reopening returns: Fresno Co. moves to state’s less-restrictive COVID-19 red tier

After several weeks of low coronavirus case counts and positivity rates, Fresno County moved into California’s “red” tier in the state’s reopening blueprint on Tuesday, meaning restrictions are loosened to an extent across the board. 

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom established the four-tier system – widespread (purple), substantial (red), moderate (orange) and minimal (yellow) – Fresno County had been in the purple category and faced the harshest restrictions. 

Fresno County was able to make the jump into slightly greener pastures Tuesday because of two key stats: positivity rate and case rate.

To be in the red tier, the state requires counties to have a positivity rate less than 8 percent and have less than seven new positive cases daily per 100,000 residents. 

The county met both requirements for the past two weeks, making the move into the red tier official. According to the state, Fresno County is averaging a 4.9 percent positivity rate and a 6.2 per 100,000 daily new case rate. 

Although the state does not consider hospitalization numbers as part of the COVID-19 metrics, Fresno County is continuing along the right path.

As of state data last updated on Monday, the county has 76 positive coronavirus patients hospitalized, including 20 in the ICU. At the peak on July 30, the county had 313 hospitalized coronavirus patients. 

Fresno County Interim Health Officer Dr. Rais Vohra was excited about the county’s movement into the less-restrictive category.

In his health briefing Tuesday, Vohra encouraged everyone to be cautious as they adapt to the new rules, regulations and guidance. 

“Please be cautious,” Vohra said. “We want to get this right. We want to proceed carefully. We definitely want to support all of the businesses and other entities that are now permitted to proceed. 

“I think that this is a very joyful moment for many members of our community, but we really have to be very mindful about the preventative aspects, just because we’re not through the woods yet. And we really need to stay cautious even if we are allowed to be doing a little bit more indoors than before when we were in purple.” 

Some of the key changes that come with the red tier is the ability for sectors that have been closed to reopen with a very limited capacity. 

Restaurants, places of worship, movie theaters, museums and zoos are allowed to reopen for in-person operations up to 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer. 

Gyms and fitness centers can reopen at 10% capacity, and all retail businesses can increase max capacity from 25% to 50%. 

In order to ensure compliance with the new rules in Fresno, Mayor Lee Brand and the Fresno City Council released a statement saying code enforcement will seek to educate first, penalize second. 

“The City of Fresno will be working with our local businesses to open safely, following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local health guidelines,” Brand and the council said. “Code Enforcement will continue to focus its resources on educating our businesses to protect the public health and will reserve penalties for egregious violators not following health guidelines. 

“As always, we remind our residents that, as more businesses reopen, we all need to do our part to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 infection. Our best defense is to continue with the existing health and safety protocols – wear a mask, keep a safe distance from others and wash your hands frequently.” 

Schools reopening

With Fresno County’s move into the red tier, the state will allow all schools to reopen for in-person instruction in two weeks. 

However, the county’s two largest districts – Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified – are not in a rush to reopen immediately. Instead, both districts are working on plans to safely reopen eventually. 

Last week, the Clovis Unified Board of Trustees directed Superintendent Eimear O’Farrell to submit a waiver to the county health department to reopen the district’s elementary schools. Assuming Fresno County’s coronavirus metrics remain within the red tier or better, the district will not need the waiver to reopen. 

Clovis Unified spokesperson Kelly Avants told The Sun that the district welcomed move to the red tier and is targeting an elementary school reopening at the end of October or the beginning of November. 

The district is considering bringing students back to school in a hybrid model, splitting time for in-person and online instruction. 

“The timeline allows needed opportunities for parents and staff to have a voice in the practical implementation of health and safety guidelines that will be in place on campuses,” Avants said in an email. “Families will also be provided the opportunity to revisit earlier choices about online, flexible online and possible in-person instruction, which in turn will result in the need to rebuild class schedules. Detailed plans and potential bell schedules for elementary families will be released before mid-October.” 

The district is still developing a timeline to return students in grades 7-12 and expects to finalize that plan in October, Avants said. 

Along with Clovis, Fresno Unified is also not planning to reopen immediately in two weeks. 

District spokesperson Vanessa Ramirez told The Sun that the district continues to work with the teachers union to develop plans for a safe reopening. 

“While today’s update is encouraging, it still has us in ‘substantial,’ so an immediate return of all students is not imminent,” Ramirez said in an email. 

Earlier in September, Superintendent Bob Nelson addressed the possibility of returning students to campus: “Having any kids on campuses, in any capacity, mandates ensuring safety, stability and access to high quality instruction. To that end, all of the state and county safety protocols must be followed, including PPE use, screening and physically distancing six feet. Given that there is no scenario under which we can distance all of our students, our return to school will be in phases.” 

What’s next? 

The next goal on Fresno County’s agenda is to move into the orange tier. To achieve that, the county will need to have a positivity rate under 5% and a case rate of less than 4 new daily positive cases per 100,000 residents. The county needs to meet both of those metrics for two consecutive weeks. 

Additionally, the state requires that countries remain in a tier for a minimum of three weeks before advancing to the next tier. 

If Fresno County pushes its metrics to meet the orange tier, the earliest the county would be eligible to move to orange would be Oct. 20. 

In order to build on the county’s recent progress and eventually continue into the orange tier, Vohra encouraged everyone to hold their activities outdoors and continue to wear face masks. 

“The masks really do help, and I’m so glad to see that there’s such general widespread use of masks now,” Vohra said. “It took a little while for everyone to adopt that, but now that it’s almost universal, that’s really helping. We just need to keep at it. 

“Don’t let down your guard, even when you’re around your close friends or relatives – just because you know them doesn’t mean you can detect coronavirus in them. Just make sure that you’re still wearing a mask even around people that you know very well, just because you don’t want to be sharing germs inadvertently.”

Daniel Gligich
Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.