One of the consistently intriguing figures in this pandemic has been Dr. Scott Morrow, the longtime health officer of San Mateo County, who has made a habit of telling it like it is when it comes to public health orders and not reverting to talking points or bureaucratic obfuscation. And this week he's posted another blog post on the county website that does not disappoint.
Rather than join with neighboring San Francisco and Santa Clara counties in voluntarily shutting personal-service businesses, gyms, and outdoor restaurants this weeks — along with a variety of other measures meant to stem the spread of COVID-19 amid a new surge — Dr. Morrow is telling everyone they need to take it upon themselves to be more careful.
"I share the intent of the State and my Bay Area colleagues, which is, during this surge, you should be staying at home as much as possible," Morrow writes. "I also deeply understand how people can look at the same issue, and seemingly the same set of facts and come to completely different conclusions... Just because one has the legal authority to do something, doesn’t mean one has to use it, or that using it is the best course of action. What I believed back in May, and what I believe now, is the power and authority to control this pandemic lies primarily in your hands, not mine."
Unfortunately, not everyone has heeded public health recommendations when it comes to travel or gathering at home with friends, and other health officers are using the more draconian levers at their disposal — shuttering various types of businesses — to help stop the spread however they can, and to spook as many people as they can into staying home and hunkering down again like they did in the spring.
Morrow is the only Bay Area health officer to date to admit that the decisions about closing things like outdoor restaurants, for instance, are not based on any particular data about the dangers of outdoor dining. And he says that virus trends appear to move regionally, not county by county, and that he's seen neighboring counties that have enacted stricter rules than he has end up in a worse place today.
He also says that behavior of people in the larger community doesn't seem to be impacted enough by orders that don't come with enforcement — and that if people haven't listened by now and adjusted their behavior accordingly, a new shutdown of businesses isn't going to change that. "What we have before us is a symbolic gesture," he says of the other counties lockdown orders. "It appears to be style over substance, without any hint of enforcement, and I simply don’t believe it will do much good."
Morrow says he absolutely believes people need to stop gathering, keep distance from each other, and wear masks. And he says that as a "Purple" tier county, if the governor's promised region-wide orders based in ICU capacity end up coming down for the Bay Area in the coming days or weeks, "San Mateo County will support it." And, he adds, "It may be that new data convinces me to take this action prior to the State’s action."
But, as of Monday, he was not shutting any more businesses down, and he's hoping people will not keep bending or breaking the rules, understand the basics of virus transmission, and slow the spread themselves.
Interestingly, Morrow also questions whether issuing orders based on ICU capacity is wise, and questions why the state has made contradictory decisions, such as allowing professional sports to proceed as an "essential" thing. "Pro sports is very nice to have and is probably a pleasant distraction. It is not essential," he writes.
Morrow estimates that there are between 8,000 and 15,000 active coronavirus infections in San Mateo County at this moment. And people need to just stop moving. "These active infections are EV-ER-Y-where," he says. "Literally, they are in every corner of the County. The chance of you encountering this virus anywhere is much, much higher than it was just a few weeks ago."
Along with Sonoma, Napa, and Solano counties, San Mateo county remains in the "Purple" zone but it has not voluntarily restricted business activities as have San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and Marin counties. If the region's overall available ICU capacity dips below 15%, Governor Gavin Newsom has said that it will fall under a three-week stay-at-home order that will be similar to what the five Bay Area counties have already opted to do.
Much as he did back in August when he called the state's watch list "arbitrary" and "misdirected," Morrow is playing devil's advocate with all the guidelines and questioning the logic behind them. Could it be that he's wrong? Certainly. Will San Mateo County likely have a similar fate in terms of virus metrics to its neighbors regardless of any new orders? Probably.