Shopping malls and other indoor retail businesses were allowed to reopen in Contra Costa County starting Wednesday, highlighting the latest county health order that expands allowable activities as coronavirus-related restrictions are loosened further.

Also to be allowed to reopen are child care for everyone (not just children of essential workers and select others), business offices, sports team practices for up to 12 participants (but not games with other teams), Scouting-type gatherings of young people and summer camps with “cohorts” of up to 12 people each that don’t mix with other groups.

Under the updated Contra Costa health order, libraries can reopen for curbside pickup service, and protests of up to 100 people will also be permitted. The new order also permits services that don’t require close customer contact, such as housekeeping, car washes, plumbing and pet grooming.

More changes are coming June 15. Religious services, with some limitations, will be allowed starting on that date. And between now and June 15, county health officials will consult with state officials about reopening swimming pools and outdoor dining.

Malls and offices still ‘high-risk’

Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County’s health officer, told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that indoor shopping malls are still considered high-risk places for the transmission of the coronavirus, and will have to create action plans to protect shoppers and employees before being allowed to reopen. And while offices will be able to reopen, Farnitano urged those who can work from home to keep doing so.

Farnitano told the supervisors that this loosening of restrictions is a reflection of the county’s success in limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Contra Costa was one of several Bay Area counties that moved early to enact shelter-in-place orders, and residents have mostly been good about social distancing.

“I know there’s a lot of frustration out there, but it’s important to keep in mind that interventions like social distancing have saved lives.”

Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County health officer

These, Farnitano said, have helped keep the county’s COVID-19 infection rate and death rate low for a county that is both older and more densely populated than most. Aside from Orinda and Pleasant Hill, two cities with senior care facilities that have suffered COVID-19 outbreaks, no city in Contra Costa has recorded more than three coronavirus-related deaths. Without early, decisive action 10 times as many people may have died from the coronavirus, Farnitano said.

“I know there’s a lot of frustration out there, but it’s important to keep in mind that interventions like social distancing have saved lives,” Farnitano said.

Supervisors Candace Andersen of Danville and Diane Burgis of Brentwood said they have heard from many constituents frustrated with the shelter-in-place order and its various ripple effects. Important going forward, they said, will be offering a more tangible timetable for reopening as many aspects of public life as possible, as the pandemic plays out.

“It’s important that we look at the practicalities,” Andersen said. And, as opposed to most Bay Area counties’ health officers having mostly acted in concert to this point, “I think we need to forge our own course forward.”

Schools and salons come later

Farnitano said reopening schools and businesses like salons and spas isn’t imminent. Health officials are in regular contact with county school officials, superintendents, principals and others working on answers.

Anna Roth, director of Contra Costa Health Services, told the supervisors the push to test as many county residents as possible for COVID-19 is increasing, and should be helped by increased reliability of a less uncomfortable, less invasive nasal test that is now more accurate than ever.

Burgis said she hopes underserved groups, including farm workers and laborers, will benefit from this new testing. The ultimate goal, Roth said, is for self-testing to one day be the norm.

In the shorter term, Roth said she fears there will be an uptick in COVID-19 infections in two to three weeks, given the public protests in the last several days in the East Bay over George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota.