EL CENTRO — Officials at the Imperial County Health Department at a Monday press conference said they are prepared to take action against businesses operating in Imperial after the City Council gave them the green light to reopen despite the state and county health orders forbidding them to do so.
Public Health Director Janette Angulo said while she is sympathetic to the frustrations and concerns of businesses impacted by the pandemic, ultimately the department has to be concerned with saving lives. She said the hope is businesses will follow the state and county health orders, and she warned of potential consequences for not following them.
Those consequences could include fines and even jail time. In addition, she said business licenses could be taken away from store owners who do open and also added the county could employ the state’s strike team if needed.
She said the county is required to enforce state health orders through the Division of Environmental Health. Local governments, including the police departments, are obligated to do the same.
These questions and answers followed the Imperial City Council’s decision Friday night to allow businesses in the community to reopen. Since Friday night’s vote, there has been no communication between the city and county, nor been given any information on the city’s plan, Angulo said.
She did say there was dialogue between city leaders and county officials Friday morning.
“When it comes to community spread there are no boundaries,” Angulo said. “Decisions made by a city will affect all other areas.”
As the health department waits for the state’s decision on its attestation request that has been forwarded to the governor, Angulo said it will closely monitor what is going on in Imperial as well as all other areas in the county.
“This pandemic is not over,” she said, adding protecting the health of the community remains the most important part of the recovery process.
“We all play a crucial role (in this) coordinated effort,” she said.
When a city or agency operates unilaterally, it brings challenges to all the work that is being accomplished with the potential to have more public transmissions and increased hospital capacity, she said.
County Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday said official submitted an attestation to the state for a variance that would allow Imperial County to move into advanced Stage 2 (high risk) and they are anxiously waiting to hear back.
But, he said, even if the variance is granted, certain businesses could only operate outdoors and school buildings could not be reopened for at least two additional weeks because the county is still on the state’s watch list.
Munday and Angulo took exception to the complaint that the health department failed to communicate where most cases were originating and how the virus was spreading through the community.
Observing that at one point Imperial County had the highest COVID infection rate in the nation, Munday said such precise analysis would have been impossible. “For the longest time we had cases so widespread we could not have narrowed it down to a particular community,” he said.
He also said it was the state that decided what businesses could and could not open during the stay-at-home order.
The county’s seven-day positive testing percentage – an important metric in advancing the recovery plan – has been hovering on either side of 8 percent for the past week or so. As of Monday evening, it was at 8.82 percent.
There have been 10,396 positive cases reported in Imperial County since the pandemic began. Of those, 774 are considered active. There have been 272 local deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and 12,234 statewide.