NEWMAN - City leaders last week reaffirmed their commitment to following the state’s stay-at-home mandate and plan for a phased reopening of non-essential businesses following state guidelines - although not without extensive discussion and mixed opinions.

Acting hours after the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors voted last Tuesday against expending county resources to enforce Governor Newsom’s mandate other than in the case of mass gatherings, the Newman City Council declined to follow suit.

By a narrow consensus - as the matter was brought up for discussion on enforcement approach rather than agendized for formal action - the council agreed to stay the course of phased reopening guided by the state’s blueprint.

“With respect to the county indicating they will not use county resources to enforce the governor’s order, the city will not follow the county’s lead,” City Manager Michael Holland confirmed in a press release later in the week. “The city will be contacting business owners if it appears they are operating outside the state’s parameters. The goal of the city is to receive voluntary compliance with the governor’s order from all our businesses and to protect the health and well-being of the entire community.”

The council was divided in supporting the recommendation of Holland and City Attorney Nubia Goldstein (who pointed out that the governor’s mandate remains in effect until lifted or overturned by a court decision) that the city continue reaching out to advise those in violation of the state’s stay-at-home order and required closure of non-essential businesses. Mayor Bob Martina and council members Laroy McDonald and Murray Day favored continuing to follow the state guidelines, while council members Casey Graham and Nick Candea spoke in favor of letting more businesses open.

“We have kept this virus in check. A lot of that is because of social distancing,” said Martina.

The mayor later told Mattos Newspapers that he wants science, not politics, to guide decisions.

“It has to be left up to professional people,” he said. “I don’t want this to be controlled by politics. I want it to be controlled by scientists.”

McDonald and Day also spoke in favor of staying on the state’s guidelines for reopening.

Day expressed his sympathy for small business owners, but pointed out that assistance programs are available - albeit through a cumbersome process.

“I sympathize with these businesses, but I also recognize that we have a responsibility as human beings to protect each other,” he stated. “Through that, we need to continue to protect ourselves by wearing face masks in public, keeping our public distancing and washing our hands. In terms of businesses opening, I think it has to be through the education process that we are already doing.”

McDonald agreed.

“I know that we have businesses that want to open up, but we have to be cautious. When we open, it will have an impact on the whole community,” said McDonald, who noted that experts predict a second wave of cases will come. “We should stay the course as we have done so far.”

Graham and Candea shared a differing opinion.

Graham said he believes people should have freedom of choice.

“There are a lot of precautions that we can take to protect ourselves. If people choose not to follow that on their own accord, that is at their own risk. The people who do will be protected by their own safety measures,” said Graham. “We are walking a very fine line in stepping on people’s constitutional rights in multiple aspects.”

Graham pointed out that the stay-at-home order has met its original purpose of avoiding a surge in cases which would overwhelm hospitals.

While expressing sympathy for the families of those who have lost a loved one to the disease, Graham suggested that the time has come to relax restrictions.

“I believe it is time people start making their own decisions,” he reiterated. “It is absolutely going to ruin somebody’s business, it can ruin their livelihood, it can ruin their family. It is getting to the point where the consequences can be much greater than the health risk.”

Candea said he agreed with the county’s action.

“I think it is a good move. I believe that all the cities within the county should probably start relaxing things and go back to work,” he stated. “I think it is time we get back to work.”

County staff noted that the Board of Supervisors action last week does not mean that higher-risk businesses such as movie theaters can open anytime soon.

The Board of Supervisors action specified that large gatherings remain subject to enforcement by the county.

While the county lifted many elements of its local health order last week, the state stay-at-home order remains in effect, Holland noted. Businesses which are state-licensed risk sanctions from the state if they open in defiance of the governor’s order, Goldstein told the council, and counties which have opened early have been warned that they risk the loss of potential emergency funding.

California is in the early phase of Stage II in the state’s four-stage plan to reopen businesses. Among the businesses currently allowed to reopen open with modification, for example, are retailers (for curbside pickup only), manufacturers which support retail and limited personal services which do not require close personal contact, according to a state website.

Stanislaus County has asked the state for permission to expedite the opening of certain businesses identified in the later Stage 2 element of the reopening plan, including dine-in restaurants with modifications.

Hair salons, gyms, entertainment venues and in-person religious services are not allowed until Stage 3 phase of the reopening, according to state guidelines.

In his press release, Holland encouraged business owners to visit covid19.ca.gov/stay-at-home-except-for-essential-needs/#top website to found out what businesses are cleared to open. Guidelines for required modifications by category of business can also be found on the state covid19 website. In some cases, county orders spell out local requirements as well. While Stanislaus County rescinded most of its local order, guidelines more restrictive than the state’s remain in place for skilled nursing and food and beverage manufacturing.

Stanislaus County has also published a document offering recommendations for reopening and links to guidelines. That document may be found on the Stanislaus County website.

Holland reiterated that the city will continue to adhere to the state guidelines and will reach out to business owners believed to be operating in violation of the order.

He emphasized that the city seeks to gain compliance through education rather than taking a punitive approach, but said the city does have a cease-and-desist letter which it could send violators if voluntary compliance is not achieved.

The city also has adopted an ordinance allowing fines to be issued if need be. “It would (take) a lot to get to that point,” Holland told Mattos Newspapers.

“The county is doing their own thing. Based on the guidance provided by my council, they would like us to continue to advise businesses that are not in compliance with the governor’s executive order,” the city manager commented. “They would like us to continue to educate our business owners and public of the governor’s executive order.”