‘Free the smile’ – and unleash deadly disease?

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union 

​HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County’s COVID-19 prevention measures came under strong criticism during a lively public comment session at a videoconferenced Board of Supervisors meeting.

​County Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich was the target of several edgy public comments as she gave supervisors a coronavirus update at their June 16 meeting.

​Frankovich noted that the county’s COVID-19 case numbers are “looking good,” with new cases trickling in slowly and only 106 confirmed at the time of the meeting. The number rose to 110 by the end of the week.

​The slow creep of cases would be cited by some public commenters as cause to back off of transmission prevention measures, with face coverings a primary cause of resentment.

Poster by Paul Sizer | paulsizer.com

Callers demanded a total lifting of the county’s shelter-in-place order.

​“Are you prepared to deal with a class action lawsuit from business owners being oppressed by your forced closures, mask wearing and extended stay in place orders?” one asked. “Our citizens are suffering from these regulations while other surrounding states are open, free and living normally and passing through here.”

​She added, “Free the smile.”

​Another caller said, “Our Humboldt County numbers don’t justify the heavy-handed approach we currently have” and “with everyone wearing masks, we can’t see their smiles – we’re being told to fear being close to each other.”

​Wearing masks was described as being unhealthy by another caller, who added that the county should “terminate the emergency if there’s no evidence to show the community is menaced by the coronavirus.”

​The county’s shelter in place order didn’t mandate wearing facial coverings and left it up to businesses and facilities to require them or not, which was noted by Frankovich.

​But masks are now required by the state, which announced the new mandate on June 18. The mask mandate emerges as the state advances further into a reopening plan.

​Frankovich emphasized the range of sectors that had recently been cleared for opening, including retail businesses, restaurants, churches, salons and barbershops, service businesses, campgrounds and outdoor recreation.

​At the end of the week, personal care services like nail salons and lodging for tourists were cleared to open.

​Their operation will be safer with prevention measures, Frankovich said.

​“We want to have all these safety measures in place so people can shop in their community, so that they can go out to eat and so that they can support our local businesses,” she continued. “Increasingly, in terms of being able to operate, our community is looking more like it used to at least from a business standpoint, at least from a permissive standpoint – sometimes it’s hard for people to see progress.”

Public Health Branch Director Michele Stephens acknowledged the effects of the county’s decisions but highlighted their purpose.

​“Everybody’s frustrated, because we’ve never been through this before I think it’s reasonable for folks to feel this, to feel like your civil liberties have been violated because you have to wear a facial covering for the protection of vulnerable people in the community,” she said. “But there are a lot of folks out there who do worry that we’re opening fast and who do support the measures that public health, as a field, takes at times of pandemics like this one.”

​Further highlighting the reasoning, Stevens added, “We’re trying to protect folks and I would just try to encourage folks to have some understanding about that.”

​Frankovich had also advised lodging business owners to make plans for extended stays of guests who get COVID-19. That was questioned by Tanner Johnson of Garberville’s Sherwood Forest Motel who said quarantined guests may not be able to afford a two-week stay or get the services they’d need to self-isolate.

​Sheriff Billy Honsal said the county could reimburse lodging businesses if the need for quarantining emerges.

​During a June 18 video on the masking mandate, Frankovich said reopenings will lead to more cases even with masking and other measures. The goal is to keep what’s expected to be a rising number of new cases within a manageable level, she continued.

​“I just want to emphasize to people that we’re not through this,” she said. “Really, COVID lies ahead in terms of exposure in this community and I think we need to just adhere to all of the safety precautions we’ve been talking about as we move forward.”

​Explaining the new mask mandate, Frankovich said the state is concerned about rising numbers of cases in some areas and a lack of masking as reopening proceeds.



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