On the first day officially into the Red Tier, diners can be seen through the window at Applebee’s in Calexico having a meal — the first indoor dining experience for Imperial County is almost a year — on Wednesday evening, March 10. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Seeing RED

Imperial County moves into the Red Tier, as theaters, indoor dining returns

A surge of optimism among Imperial County residents could be heard in their words and seen in their deeds as something as simple as dining indoors for a bite to eat was a sign that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic might just be in the rearview mirror.

“I’m super excited things are finally going back to normal. I think of all those that have lost their jobs or restaurants due to being shut down, and I’m thankful those same restaurants are now being allowed to open and hire employees again,” said Imperial resident Tiffinie Macias on Wednesday afternoon, March 10, the first official day of Imperial County’s new status as a Red Tier county.

Slowly at first, and in limited numbers, local eateries and national chain restaurants alike dusted off their tables and chairs and opened their doors to welcome diners inside on a particularly cool and breezy spring evening.

“We’re extremely pleased to have our indoor dining back, and we hope we can keep on moving towards something close to normal,” said Bobby Puga, owner of Humble Farmer Brewery in Holtville and Imperial, on Tuesday, March 9.

A few tables are filled at the food court in the Imperial Valley Mall in El Centro on Wednesday, March 10, the first day in which indoor dining in Imperial County was able to resume as part of the region’s continued improvement in COVID-19 case rates and positivity percentages that elevated the area from the “widespread” Purple Tier to the “substantial” Red Tier. Two major changes occurred at the mall on Wednesday: food court dining court resume at 25 percent capacity and retail shopping could move from 25 percent to 50 percent capacity. | COURTESY PHOTO

Puga’s comment came just a few hours after it was announced that Imperial County COVID rates had stayed consistently low enough for two consecutive weeks to warrant elevating the area from “widespread” Purple Tier status, to the “substantial” yet more permissive Red Tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

“We are constantly thankful for the supporters that have been with us throughout this pandemic,” Puga added.

Health experts shared the public’s enthusiasm, albeit with the measured dose of finger wagging we’ve come to expect from those charged with ensuring the county’s overall well-being in the fight against the coronavirus.

“The bottom line is, this is all fantastic news,” said Imperial County Health Officer, Dr. Stephen Munday, seconds before adding a big ol’ but. “We don’t want to let our guard down. There are (SARS-CoV-2, or the virus that causes COVID-19,) variants out there that could perhaps reinfect people that could not be as well treated by the therapeutics we are using, or the prevented by the vaccine.”

Yet it is the increasing vaccination rates, at the state level and nationally, that has U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention talking about loosening its guidelines and recommended restrictions.

“The bottom line is, we’re anticipating certain things will be relaxed for people that are fully vaccinated, especially when they’re around other people who are vaccinated in small groups,” Munday said. “It’s important to note that in the meantime … nothing on the regulatory side has changed yet. There’s still a state health officer order that requires distancing and masking, there’s still the state health officer order with regards to gatherings (small groups indoors with no more than three households).”

For Imperial County, though, there’s cause for cautious celebration. Already this week, the first of the larger local public-school districts, Holtville Unified, returned to a modified form of in-person instruction on Tuesday morning, when a cohort of transitional kinder and kindergarten students returned to Finley Elementary’s quiet campus.

Now, with the move to the Red Tier, state guidance says that all K-12 in-person instruction can resume, but what that looks like from school district to school district is still jelling.

“K-12 has its own framework and guidance, and we’ve been working very close with public and private schools, mostly public schools,” county Public Health Director Janette Angulo said Tuesday.

Under Purple, to resume K-6 in-person instruction, districts had to submit a COVID Safety Plan to be reviewed by the county and the state.

With Red, “The Public Health Department does not review or approve,” Angulo said, if each district posts its safety plan online to their respective websites five days prior to opening.

“For schools, what this means is … as soon as (Wednesday), they can start reopening K-12, but that is up to the individual school districts to decide,” she said.

Still, the entertainment/restaurant sector is where the public will see that most visceral impact, considering it has been right around a full year since Imperial County residents had the opportunity to go out to dinner under a stationary rooftop, or sit down in a darkened movie theater. Now, there even exists the chance for a night out with dinner and a popcorn flick.

On Friday, March 12, Cinemark’s Imperial Valley Mall 14 opens in El Centro, with Metropolitan Theatres Corp.’s Calexico 10 Theatres to follow on March 26, opening dates that have been announced on both parent companies’ websites.

That news came by way of Bobby Gran, owner of The Movies in Imperial and the long-closed Motor-Vu Twin Drive-In in El Centro. With deep roots in the area, dating back to his family’s operation of the Motor-Vu in 1968, Gran’s Santa Maria-based Cal Gran Theaters LLC is the closest thing the Valley has to a locally owned cinema.

The Movies in Imperial, one of Gran’s six theaters, will be the last of the local movie houses to open its doors. His plans are to open sometime between the end of March and the end of April, when he tests the market at the midpoint of the first two major Hollywood blockbusters to be released in this COVID-light era, Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla vs. King Kong” on March 31 and Marvel Studios/Disney’s “Black Widow” on May 7, Gran said.

“We’re surveying all the employees that were laid off to see who’s available,” Gran said on Thursday morning, March 11. “We don’t want to put any of our patrons or employees in jeopardy. … We were one of the first (theaters) to shut down.”

Under the Red Tier, theaters can open indoors but at an abbreviated 25 percent capacity, or a maximum of 100 theater-goers, whichever comes first, Angulo said on Tuesday.

COURTESY IMPERIAL COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT

Gran said that will be difficult for profitability, and he might even wait for the county to move to the Orange Tier. All things considered, California is doing well; Gran said theaters in New York City have a maximum capacity of 50 people, even in a 500-seater.

With restaurants, the indoor capacity constraints are similar, Angulo said, with 25 percent capacity there or 100 people tops, whichever comes first. But these limits do not include the additional patrons that can still dine outdoors, she said Tuesday.

That’s good enough for Richard Rubio, owner of Tropical Delights sandwich shop in Brawley.

“It’s awesome,” Rubio said of the return to indoors. “It’ll get more business through the door and generate our local economy, which desperately needs it.”

El Centro resident Jessica Cole is also glad to see things opening further, but she said she’ll continue to take it slowly.

“I feel as long as there are safeguards firmly in place, I’m all for being able to eat in restaurants again. I may go at an off-peak day or time, to feel more comfortable with being in a crowd,” she told this newspaper on Wednesday.

The retail sector, which was already open at 25 percent capacity under the Purple Tier, gets to widen its reach under Red, with the expansion to 50 percent capacity with all the same social-distancing and masking requirements.

The same for the Imperial Valley Mall, which expands to 50 percent capacity as well, but gets to phase in its food court now, with the same limits put on restaurants. Common areas are to remain closed, however.

From a merchant’s perspective, Beba Smitty, the owner of Threads and Cuts Parlor in Calexico, where COVID has arguably hit the populace and the economy the hardest in all the county, the move to the Red Tier brings mixed emotions.

“As a small business owner, I’m thrilled to see more people coming into the store. The fear of shutting down permanently becomes less of a possibility,” Smitty said. “However, the reality the virus spreads because of the loosening of restrictions does worry me some. That being said, I hope we don’t go back to another stay-at-home order. All small businesses are essential.”

Normalcy, Albeit the ‘New’ Normal

What all of this means is, a sense of normalcy is beginning to return to locals’ lives, something Sunset Blends BarberShop owner Marco Caro has been waiting to witness.

“It’s remarkable seeing the community getting back into a, somewhat, normal routine. Obviously, COVID threw us all a curveball, but we’ll come back stronger and better than before,” the El Centro businessowner said.

Dr. Munday noted Tuesday that all the difficult work that was done by health officials and the public at every level at every stage in the various waves of the virus this country has experienced are bearing fruit as we enter the “backside of the surge.”

“The difference is, what we’re doing is making everyone happy and it’s good news and it’s work, (but) we’re moving back toward what we’ll call normal, and that’s really exciting for everyone,” Munday added.

The Red Tier is still a far cry from swinging the doors open on life as we knew it. There are many areas that will remain unaffected with the change, Angulo indicated.

For instance, the orders on indoor gatherings are still unchanged, concerts and sporting events are still out, nightclubs and bars are still closed where no food is served, indoor attendance of church services remain capped at 25 percent capacity.

Some of the other things that have changed are not necessarily major developments. Amusement parks are still closed in Southern California, and locally, the museums that get to reopen, will do so at 25 percent capacity.

Fitness center and gyms, which had only been opened to outdoors use under the Purple Tier (wink, wink, gym owners all over the state), are only able to open indoors at 10 percent capacity under the Red Tier.

Further movement toward pre-March 2020 conditions will be largely dependent on the ability to get the public vaccinated.

Vaccination Efforts Changing, But First …

Some 35,350 doses of vaccine had been received between the county and its network of providers, with 8,510 doses pending this week and at least 2,170 second doses coming next week, Angulo said Tuesday.

The county was to hear from the state on Wednesday how many first doses are in the pipeline for next week, but clearly the number of vaccine doses making their way to Imperial County is increasing every week.

“This is going to put us over the top, but it has to be continual,” Imperial County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr. told an inewsource reporter of this week’s larger allocation. “It’s not something we want to stop. We need more, and we’ll continue to ask for more until we are back on track and have normalcy back.”

Presently, it’s unclear whether this surge, for lack of a better term, in doses is due to changes in how vaccine is to be distributed in California moving forward, the fact that there is a third vaccine in circulation with last week’s federal emergency authorization granted to the single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, or a combination of the two.

Neither Angulo or Munday on Tuesday spoke of the new statewide allocation system announced last week, but Angulo said the Public Health Department received this week’s shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines on Tuesday morning.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on March 4 that 40 percent of the state vaccine supply will be shipped to more than 400 ZIP codes with the bottom-most Healthy Places Index scores, and more than a dozen of those ZIP codes are in Imperial County.

The Healthy Places Index looks at income, healthcare access, transportation, the environment, and other factors, according to its website. About 18 percent of the administered doses in California, which was a total of 10.77 million doses as of Wednesday, have gone to people living in the bottom 25 percent of the listed ZIPs.

Vaccine allocation for those eligible areas will double under the changes, according to inewsource. For Imperial County, that appears to be bearing out if not bettered: for the week ending Friday, March 5, Imperial County received 3,850 doses of vaccine, and this week’s tally of 8,510 doses is a more than 121 percent increase.

Although this news might be of welcome relief to local health officials, it doesn’t appear to be having all that much impact compared to the rest of the state, where Imperial County continues to fall farther behind the rest of the state in doses pushed into arms.

For the past few weeks, Imperial County has ranked between 47th and 50th among California’s 58 counties for doses administered per 100,000 residents. As of Thursday morning, that ranking fell to 54th of 58, with 32,321 doses given, or 17,934.6 per 100,000 residents.

And there isn’t a lot of doses sitting around anymore, either. Early on, Imperial County Public Health Department was criticized for hanging on to too many doses, which officials said was to ensure supplies for second-dose clinics, but several weeks ago that changed, and now the idea is to give what is received as soon as possible, Angulo has said.

She explained on Tuesday that the county has received 35,350 combined doses so far. In addition to vaccination clinics being held by hospitals, private providers, and others signed up to receive an allocation through the state, Public Health is doing near daily curbside and mobile clinics on a smaller scale.

On Friday, March 12, Public Health will put around 2,350 doses in arms during two mass vaccination drive-through clinics at Imperial Valley College. Some 1,500 second doses will be administered to seniors 65 and older in the morning and 850 first doses will be given to educators in the afternoon.

Even bigger changes are on the horizon as the state expands who can be vaccinated and when. As it stands, Public Health Department and local providers are making their way through Phases 1A and 1B, Tier 1, or those 65 and older and educators, ag and food workers, and others. The general population has not been able to really get a shot at the shots yet.

COURTESY IMPERIAL COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT

On Monday, March 15, that changes somewhat, when local providers start to get some medical discretion on who gets vaccinated. Those ages 16 to 64 with severe medical conditions or some disabilities are added into the mix, Angulo said, when providers get to use their “clinical judgment” to decide.

Also, Imperial County Public Health will be the first provider locally to begin to use the state’s long-promised MyTurn.ca.gov/ with Public Heath helping to “onboard” local providers in the coming weeks, so that Imperial County residents can sign up to receive the vaccine, find out what’s available, and where they can go.

Like Munday noted, Imperial County has been in the Purple Tier since the designation was first established, and in the worst-off designation even before the color-coded system was put in place.

So, the time for some relief is now.

“I feel this partial reopening comes at a perfect time,” said Alexis Bandera, owner of Bandera’s Barber & Beauty in El Centro. “This small valley has felt the harsh impacts of the virus lockdowns, and it’s nice to get some foot traffic in the door at a faster and more steady rate.”

Dan Bruce, pastor at Faith Assembly in Imperial, agreed the Valley is due a proverbial and apropos shot in the arm.

And while churches and places of worship did not get a boost from the move to Red like other sectors, he said, “We’re headed in the right direction. We just need to have faith that everything will eventually settle itself out.

“Although the lockdowns have been rough, we’re grateful to finally and hopefully be on the better end of this thing,” Bruce added.

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