California Officials Threaten to Withhold Coronavirus Funds from Rural County After Local Leaders Open Economy

Governor Gavin Newsom speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Just hours after Tulare County supervisors voted to open up for business despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lockdown orders, officials received a letter threatening to withhold some of the $47 million in federal CARES Act relief funds it had been awarded.

“It is my understanding Tulare County has taken steps that are inconsistent with the Governor’s Executive Orders and the State Public Health Officer’s directives,” the letter from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said.

“These problematic and concerning actions jeopardize public health and safety, not only within the county, but beyond, through community contact and spread,” the letter said. It went on:

If Tulare County believes there is no emergency, such that it can ignore the Governor’s Executive Orders or the State Public Health Officer’s directives, the county would not be able to demonstrate that it was extraordinarily and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This could jeopardize its disaster fundin.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on how local officials were responding to the suffering of local businesses when they voted to reopen:

“It’s become an issue of needing to get people back on their feet, back to work,” said Supervisor Dennis Townsend, who authored the county’s measure that permits virtually all businesses to reopen and halts local enforcement of the California stay-at-home directive. “By trying to protect people, we were taking away the livelihood of people.”

The Visalia Times Delta reported on the rift between state and local governments:

The supervisors’ 3-2 decision allows nearly all businesses to reopen that fall under Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the state’s plan. That includes dine-in restaurants, churches, barbers, gyms, movie theaters and shopping malls.

As for the disaster funding, Townsend said the county has spent about $1.4 million on its COVID-19 response so far. By comparison, the CAO estimates the county will lose between $18-25 million in tax revenues with the economy shut down.

On Monday, Newsom singled out Tulare and neighboring Kings counties as two of five that will remain closed under newly relaxed criteria for restarting California’s economy. He pointed to severe outbreaks at nursing homes and meatpacking plants as obstacles the bi-county region would need to overcome before its economy could progress.

The Times Delta reported that Chairman Pete Vander Poel said “holding Tulare County hostage” because of nursing homes and the “corporate bad actors” who operate them for a profit is unfair because it is, after all, the state regulates those facilities.

But some businesses are nervous since state officials have bullied them.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) closed a Corcoran bar over the weekend following a similar reopening resolution passed by Kings County supervisors Friday, the Times Delta reported.

Another establishment, Downtown Rookies Visalia,  announced it would reopen with dine-in service at 50 percent capacity but reversed it decision.

The bar wrote on its Facebook page:

However, after speaking with ABC this morning, we must follow governor Newsom’s restrictions and ABC will not permit any sit-down dining for restaurants that have a liquor license. So, unfortunately, we are back to take out only, until this governor of ours decides to release us for business as usual.

The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology also spoke out against businesses opening.

“If businesses continue to put public health and safety at risk by not following the guidance provided, and if circumstances warrant it, the Board may pursue disciplinary action against their license,” the board said in a statement. “This will not be taken lightly.”

But others who live in this rural part of California agree with the plan to reopen the local economy.

“I’m happy with the board’s decision; it’s a step in the right direction,” Keith Korsgaden, who partially opened up his Visalia Crawdaddy’s dining room on Wednesday, said in the Times Delta report. “A lot of people would like a big part of their social life back, gathering for lunch and dinner with each other.”

Customer Asha Pratt said she was glad to finally sit down for lunch with her two daughters.

“I’m happy Crawdaddy’s is open,” she said. “It’s time to open the economy.”

The Chronicle reported that county leaders have no intention of changing course.

“We will not be doing any type of enforcement,” Supervisor Kuyler Crocker said.

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