Newsom critics plan in-person event on COVID near Sacramento

To the dismay of Sacramento County’s health officer, a group pushing back on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 restrictions is hosting a conference in Rancho Murieta this weekend, bringing in sheriffs, elected officials and business lobbyists to make the case that Newsom’s stay-at-home orders have harmed the California economy.

Calling itself Re-Open Cal Now, the group plans multiple panel discussions at Murieta Equestrian Center, a horse-show venue, as well as a rally at the Capitol.

One of its leading organizers, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, said the weekend is designed to explore the ramification of the shutdown orders with a “nice, non-partisan voice.” Hewitt is a Libertarian.

He added, “We’re trying to show we can open up and be safe.” Conference organizers will provide masks and make sure attendees remain socially distant, he said.

The conference was immediately criticized by Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye.

“This three-day, in-person conference, scheduled to take place in Sacramento County, is in violation of state and local health orders and has the potential to become a super-spreader event,” Kasirye said in a prepared statement. “This is exceedingly troubling as we are experiencing an unprecedented number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Not only does this put the event attendees at risk, it puts the conference venue employees at risk of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to their families.”

Kasirye also issued a warning to the owner of a nearby hotel where out-of-town participants are staying, saying civil or criminal penalties are possible.

Yet a member of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, Sue Frost, is among the co-organizers.

“I’m excited to be a part of the conference so that experts and public policy leaders can discuss scientific and evidence based solutions to navigating the shutdown and improving health outcomes in a safe environment,” Frost said in a prepared statement.

The speakers’ list is dominated by Republican leaders who’ve been critical of Newsom, including Rep. Tom McClintock, who is speaking Friday night. Also scheduled to participate are two Republican assemblymen who’ve mounted a successful lawsuit challenging some of the governor’s executive authority — Kevin Kiley and James Gallagher. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a COVID survivor and frequent Newsom critic, is set to headline a panel discussion Saturday morning with his counterparts from El Dorado and Riverside counties.

State Treasurer Fiona Ma, a Democrat, had been scheduled to speak at a breakfast panel titled “Lockdown Boomerang: Economic Impact of COVID.” But Ma said through a spokesman that she won’t be involved after all.

“I was invited to participate on a small business panel at the conference to talk about our state’s resources and programs to help Californians,” she said in a statement released by spokesman Mark DeSio. “Since it is now clearly political I have declined to participate.”

Kiley, one of the Assembly members fighting Newsom in court, is releasing a book soon that’s titled “Recall Newsom: The case against America’s Most Corrupt Governor.” The Re-Open Cal website domain is registered to Tab Berg, a Republican strategist whose website includes updates on the effort to get the Newsom recall on the ballot.

But Hewitt insisted the conference isn’t political.

“This has nothing to do with the recall; this has nothing to do with Trump,” he said. “I wouldn’t be part of it if it was.”

‘Stay-at-home orders are flat-out ridiculous’

Among the speakers is Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, who has been among the most outspoken sheriffs in California when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions. For months, he’s found a national audience in far-right conservative outlets decrying the state’s stay-at-home orders. It wasn’t clear if he’s attending in person or remotely; his office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“These closures and stay-at-home orders are flat-out ridiculous,” Bianco said last month in a holiday video message.

In Riverside County, outbreaks have hit Bianco’s jails hard. Cal/OSHA fined the department almost $18,000 for violating coronavirus regulations at one jail, and at least two deputies have died after being infected with the coronavirus. The county is appealing the fine.

At least 871 jail inmates had tested positive as of Wednesday.

Also on the agenda is Dr. Joe Ladapo, a medical professor at UCLA, who wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal headlined, “Masks are a distraction from the pandemic reality.” Another speaker is Dr. George Fareed, an Imperial County doctor who has come out in favor of an unproven COVID cocktail that used hydroxychloroquine.

The conference comes as COVID-19 infections surge and Newsom’s administration, along with public health officials, continue to plead with Californians to avoid large gatherings.

Hewitt said about 85 people have registered to attend. Boomer Shannon, said organizers are taking steps to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

“We’re going to have lots of masks and lots of hand sanitizer and people will be socially distanced.” He said the conference venue — the Murieta Equestrian Center, which hosts horse shows and other events — was chosen because it provides plenty of space for distancing.

Conference organizers have also lined up lodging at the nearby Murieta Inn and Spa, in spite of state COVID-19 restrictions that say hotels are off-limits to anyone who isn’t an essential worker.

Hewitt, the Riverside supervisor, said elected officials and others attending the conference fit the definition of essential workers. “We’re as essential as it gets,” he said.

Kasirye, the county’s public health officer, wrote hotel owner Carol Anderson Ward, who also owns the equestrian center, a warning letter about lodging conference participants.

In her letter, Kasirye said hosting the conference would represent a violation of state and county health orders and could bring civil or criminal sanctions, including misdemeanor charges and fines.

“The County of Sacramento is prepared to pursue all available civil and criminal sanctions should your facility continue to operate in violation of these public health orders,” Kasirye wrote.

Ward and the general manager of the hotel couldn’t be reached for comment.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.

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