Back to Red for Shasta County! With Just Hours to Spare, State Pulls County From Purple Precipice

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See that purple? It should be red.

No putrid purple tier for Shasta County. Color us rosy red.

Shasta County CEO Matt Pontes received a welcome phone call that broke the good news Friday night from Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Department of Public Health. Ghaly told Pontes that Shasta County could remain in the state’s COVID-19 red tier.

Dr. Mark Ghaly

What made this information especially dramatic was its timing: Friday at midnight Shasta County was expected to move out of its red tier and into the more restrictive purple tier, a move that would have meant greater restrictions, such as a ban on indoor dining, and indoor worship services, to name but two examples.

On Saturday, Shasta County Supervisor Leonard Moty said that Ghaly’s decision was made possible because of ongoing relationships developed between the state and county officials. Special recognition went to county CEO Matt Pontes for his connections.

Matt Pontes, Shasta County Executive Officer

A pivotal Wednesday phone conversation brought together supervisors Moty and Chimenti, CEO Pontes and Shasta County public health staff for an in-depth conversation with Ghaly and his team about Shasta County’s tier status, poised to trade red for the purple tier.

To add to even more confusion to the county’s unique circumstances, its recent dramatic COVID spikes technically threw the county into the immediate purple tier, though according to the state system, the county would remain in red for a few weeks, knowing that the inevitable purple tier was waiting.

But fortunately for Shasta County, the purple tier was not to be. The county was able to present to Ghaly and his team the county’s actions it had quickly taken in response to the outbreak, including immediate contact tracing, requesting state personnel to assist at the Windsor senior care facility (one spike source), additional oversight at the facilities, and more frequent testing.

Supervisor Leonard Moty said the county team was also able to demonstrate that despite the spike in cases, many Shasta County businesses were diligently complying with state’s COVID-19 public safety mandates, and perhaps most notably, Shasta County’s reported positive COVID cases had been declining.

“Dr. Ghaly clearly grasped the issues surrounding this situation, and indicated that he – along with his staff – was willing to review the situation and would get back to the county shortly,” Moty said.

That was Wednesday. Things were looking promising for Shasta County.

Friday night

Then came Friday night, when Pontes got some of the best news Shasta County has had in some time, a call that pulled Shasta County from the brink of the purple tier. Ghaly’s decision followed that Wednesday discussion between Ghaly, his staff, and the Shasta County representatives, all of whom reviewed the county’s most current data with regard to the previous seven days.

Ghaly determined that the number of positive cases had dropped dramatically. This information, along with the county’s testing rate – more than twice the state average — indicated to the state the county’s exceptional efforts.

These facts validated for Ghaly the county’s public health team’s performance in controlling the spike in COVID cases, while also working to keep the citizens safe.

Moty said Ghaly was impressed by the county’s efforts, as well as its sharp decline in cases, both of which helped Ghaly determine that Shasta County could remain in the red tier.

Moty said he was pleased to see the positive results from the county and state dialogue.

Supervisor Leonard Moty

“This clearly demonstrates that the course of action chosen by supervisors Mary Rickert, Joe Chimenti, Steve Morgan and myself was the correct decision,” he said.

“Our willingness to reach out to the state and negotiate on behalf of our citizens was far more beneficial than what was proposed by others.”

In Moty’s final comment, he emphasized that it’s imperative that all members of the community follow state guidelines in order to keep Shasta County businesses open and minimize the spread of the virus.

That troubling Tuesday

So Shasta County will remain in the red tier, thanks to the efforts of key county representatives, and Ghaly and his team from the governor’s office. We dodged a purple bullet.

This positive outcome was no thanks to District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh. In fact, had supervisors taken leave of their senses and followed his direction to, as supervisor Moty described Baugh’s actions – “poke the bear” – had supervisors complied with citizens who demanded supervisors ignore the state, Shasta County would be in a world of hurt now, and most likely mired in purple restrictions right about now.

How did we get to the Thursday special meeting that lasted seven hours and resulted in no motion, no vote, just one supervisor’s ill-conceived grandstanded idea that gave false hope to so many, and put the county in danger of receiving increased scrutiny, and at risk for losing county/state partnership benefits?

The trouble began in the middle of the Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting during which District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh announced an out-of-the blue proposal to defy the state and withdraw from its tiered system, a comment that was met by hearty applause from some members of the public inside the board chambers.

“Folks, this is not OK, purple is not our friend,” Baugh said Tuesday. “We cannot allow purple to dictate our lives.”

Baugh said the state tiered system served no purpose.

District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh

“I cannot and I will not agree,” Baugh said. “We do not have to go along with that mandate. There’s nothing you can say that will convince me that we must remain part of this system that shuts down our businesses.”

He spoke at length about examples of businesses negatively impacted by the state mandates, and included a sarcastic reference to businesses that, “fall into that naughty, naughty purple category that says you’re not worthy of being open.”

“This is not fair, it’s not equitable, it’s not right,” Baugh said. “I will not support it.”

Baugh said he believed the county could do better designating and devising its own tiered system, and therefore, the county should withdraw from the state system. He made a motion to schedule a special meeting to discuss his ideas further.

Supervisor Joe Chimenti seconded the motion, with the caveat that doing so did not mean he was agreeing with Baugh, only that he was open to a discussion. The motion passed 5-0.

The meeting that could have ruined everything

Then came 9 a.m. Thursday, and the special Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting requested by Baugh. Since Tuesday, word had spread about the Thursday meeting, something that was much anticipated and widely shared on social media among two general camps.

One camp was comprised largely of Baugh followers, including anti-maskers who’ve demanded for months that the county defy the state and fully open the county. Many of these people were under the mistaken impression that the purpose of that special meeting was to vote on opening Shasta County, something that was, of course, impossible. Many of these people do not believe masks work, or are necessary.

The second group was made up of members of the public who valued the public health department’s efforts to keep the county’s residents safe, and were against Baugh’s idea to divorce from the state’s tier system. Many of these people believe in public health COVID safety mandates.

Thursday’s special meeting public comment period lasted for nearly six hours, with three hours taking place in the morning with about 62 in-person comments, and another three hours of public comment heard in the afternoon with approximately 133 recorded voicemail messages. Of those, in all, there were about 69 commenters who asked for the county to open, and about 122 who asked supervisors to remain within the state tier program.

At some point, there were so many people logged on to the county’s live streaming version of the special meeting that all county employees received emails that said, “URGENT: Network/Internet Bandwidth Critically Low.  The system had reached critical capacity/saturation, and employees were asked to refrain from watching the video. (However, the audio function was still available.)

At last, the public comment period was over. It was time for county business, which lasted about one hour. Shasta County public health gave a detailed report about the benefits of remaining with the state, and the negative consequences, should the county defy the state mandates. In a word, there was not a single good thing that could come from defying the state tier system, but a slew of bad things.

She summarized her points with the reality slap that it doesn’t matter whether a county as a whole agrees with the state mandates or not, the fact is that state agencies, such as ABC, Cal-OSHA, and an alphabet soup of others, would still have the ability to enforce and fine businesses for non-compliance of the state’s COVID-19 mandates. Plus, she said that counties in the purple tier are under even more stringent oversight and scrutiny.

All over but the shoutin’

And that was that. By the conclusion of Thursday’s seven-hour special meeting, requested by Baugh for an idea that offered the public hope for something that was not only not possible, but carried a high risk for the county and its businesses. After all that, Baugh made no argument for his point, and offered no motion. For what it’s worth, there was no apology, either, for the colossal amount of waste of not just people’s time, energy, angst and stress, but so many people’s hopes that were never based in reality, because of Baugh. I think of what it took for that one pregnant young mother with five little kids – and a baby in a backpack – to haul all those children to the Board of Supervisors special meeting, so she could earnestly ask the supervisors to vote to open the county. And she was just one of nearly 60 people who, like her, spoke in person at the meeting, not to mention the 133 who took the time to call in their messages. It was good to hear all the speakers, but it was all based upon two faulty premises: that the county was opening, or that the county was defying the state.

Even so, Baugh addressed the elephant in the room.

“Just to spare you a bunch of consternation, I can count,” Baugh said with a chuckle. “I can see that there isn’t going to be a move to move us out of the tiered system today, so I’ll focus on other areas, and accept the will of the majority of the board.”

And with that, without a sniff of a segue, Baugh abruptly switched tracks and admonished the public health department for what he perceived as mishandling of the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry cases, for not sounding the alarm sooner.

Baugh’s sudden indignation about Bethel Church and BSSM led to an earnest discussion about the world-famous megachurch, and the best way to proceed with it, with regard to the coronavirus. That’s a whole other discussion for another day.

Eventually, as the meeting appeared to be wrapping up, supervisors Moty, Chimenti and Rickert all spoke about how wonderful it would be if Shasta County was known as a community that stood together during this crisis, a county that was welcoming and positive, with people who worked together. Wouldn’t it be nice if Shasta County was not just known for videos and press releases that go viral, that show the more negative sides of our North State? I’ll drink to that.

Baugh added his two cents, and this time, he made the same statements about how terrible the shutdowns are, and he told about a suicide, and said the trouble with TV is that his long original Tuesday speech only received a few seconds of air time, or a few words in the newspaper, neither of which fully encapsulated his entire message. Then he was off to the soapbox races.

Eventually Moty spoke up, and pointed out that Thursday’s Les Baugh did not resemble Tuesday’s Les Baugh.

“I am getting tired of your doubletalk,” Moty said.

Mic drop. 

Chair Rickert followed that up with encouragement to remain positive and optimistic and have hope. And one more thing, on that Thursday, as purple loomed as dark as an ugly bruise on the horizon.

“Everyone go out to dinner tonight,” she said.

So much gratitude

Today, I offer my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Shasta County staff, especially CEO Matt Pontes, and Supervisors Leonard Moty, Mary Rickert, Joe Chimenti and Steve Morgan, for their leadership. Extra special thanks to the team at Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency for doing everything in their powers to keep us safe – all of us, even those who deliver threats and verbal abuse.

Most of all, deepest gratitude to Dr. Mark Ghaly. You’ll never know how much joy and relief and hope you’ve given us here in Shasta County. Thank you for caring. Thank you for listening and helping find a solution for our unique situation.

Finally, I congratulate all the business owners who were scrambling all day Friday to comply to the purple tier, wondering how you’d survive another round of restrictions that might force you to close forever. I’m so happy for you, and for us that hopefully you’ll be around for  long time so we can help support you.

In the meantime, let us bask in Shasta County’s red tier. Color us red! We’ll take it.

 

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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