Solano County’s about-face: Why officials resisted, then adopted coronavirus shelter-at-home order

San Francisco Chronicle, by Rachel Swan, March 21, 2020 11:34 a.m
People under quarantine at Travis Air Force Base wander through the facility. Robert Archer, who is there with his wife, said the common areas get very crowded and long lines form for meals.
People under quarantine at Travis Air Force Base wander through the facility. Robert Archer, who is there with his wife, said the common areas get very crowded and long lines form for meals. Photo: Robert Archer / Robert Archer

Solano County Supervisor Skip Thomson was livid.

Coronavirus was rapidly spreading in the Bay Area, and county health leaders were uniting in unprecedented orders to the public: stay at home.

It started Monday, with six of the nine Bay Area counties issuing orders — San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin. On Tuesday, Sonoma County joined, and Napa signaled it would soon join.

But Solano County was a holdout.

“I had a talk with our county administrator,” on Tuesday, Thomson said. “I told her my thoughts about sheltering in place. She said ‘We don’t want to alarm the public.’”

County administrator Birgitta Corsello called Thomson’s recollection inaccurate, but she did not elaborate, according to spokesman Matthew Davis.

On Tuesday, Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas released a statement to the public about the coronavirus and the shelter-in-place orders other counties had issued. He conveyed the message via a YouTube video posted on the county’s official website.

In the video, Matyas sat at a desk with his sleeves rolled up and delivered a nine-minute monologue over looped guitar music. He dismissed the shelter-in-place orders as essentially just social distancing orders that mirrored guidelines the state and federal government already put out.

“For those of you who are familiar with the concept of ‘shelter in place,’ it’s used in situations when it’s dangerous to go outside because the air is dangerous, so if there’s been a toxic chemical spill or a fire with smoke,” Matyas said. He added that “shelter in place” was not the right terminology for what’s actually social distancing.

Over the next few hours, emails poured into Thomson’s inbox. Most of them came from perplexed or frustrated residents, questioning why Solano County was not taking action.

By the end of the next day, Wednesday, the county did an about-face, issuing an order instructing residents to stay in their homes as much as possible. By Friday, Matyas’ video was made private, so the public could no longer view it.

Board of Supervisors President Erin Hannigan said she asked that the video be taken down.

“It wasn’t helpful anymore,” she said. “It needed to be altered. There were some statements he made that were no longer true … and I couldn’t stand the music.”

Davis added that the video “understandably, wasn’t tracking well with the public.” It drew a string of comments on YouTube and the county Facebook page, some of which “were not supportive,” he noted.

Thomson said that after talking to the county administrator Tuesday, he emailed Hannigan requesting a special meeting to plan for the pandemic. He said Hannigan did not respond. When he complained to Assistant County Administrator Nancy Huston, she told him the county would not hold a special meeting. Its next regular meeting is scheduled for March 24.

“What kind of message does that send to our residents?” Thomson asked.

Hannigan said later that she did reply to Thomson, but that there was no need for the board to meet. Top county officials were already “having a conversation” behind the scenes “about an order we would put out,” she said. “We wanted to make sure the nomenclature was correct.”

In the meantime, constituents were flooding Thomson with emails that showed an overwhelming sense of confusion and a lack of confidence in the county government.

“I am shocked at the utter lack of proactive response that is being taken by our county health officer Bela Matyas,” Vacaville resident Heather Smolen wrote in an email shared with The Chronicle. “In the video he recently posted online he stated that a shelter in place would cause people to ‘overreact.’ I beg to differ, I feel that a shelter in place for Solano County would cause people to finally take the risk of coronavirus seriously.”

Thomson began forwarding the emails — probably 70 of them, he said — to Huston. Other supervisors said they were also getting slammed.

“I received a lot of calls from people asking why we weren’t adopting a shelter-in-place (order),” Supervisor Jim Spering said. “I passed that on to the county administrator.”

Matyas was not available for comment Friday. Davis said all the supervisors were feeling pressure from their constituents to issue orders, and that Corsello and Matyas were trying to act as quickly as possible.

Yet many residents sensed there was no urgency to act in their county. Some were baffled by Matyas’ reluctance to enact strict interventions, in part because Solano County was the first county in the nation to report a case of coronavirus that couldn’t be traced to overseas travel or contact with an infected person. It also houses Travis Air Force Base, a quarantine center for Americans repatriated from trips abroad, and for passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship.

So far 14 Solano County residents have tested positive for the virus, though none have died.

The notion that Solano County was still open for business troubled Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan. He said many Vallejo residents worried that people from other counties would flock in, causing the virus to spread more quickly. Residents were also mystified by the stark disconnect between Matyas’ video and the advisories that Vallejo was posting on its own social media channels, telling people to stay inside.

“I received concerned correspondences from constituents,” Sampayan said. “Folks were saying, ‘Look, the governor and the CDC are telling us one thing, and then we’re getting this’” other message.

He surmised that the public outcry caused Matyas to “rethink his stance.”

Spering defended Matyas. He was wary of the shelter-in-place edicts, since they force people to miss work and disrupt the economy. Although some people called him to demand more aggressive measures, others were distraught about losing their jobs.

“I’ve been getting calls from moms who have two kids, work in two restaurants, and 40% of their income is tips,” Spering said. “We have a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck.”

Still, as a longstanding politician, Spering knew he’d feel pressure to eventually deliver a shelter-at-home order.

Thomson remains frustrated. He never bothered to watch Matyas’ video.

“Once the first six counties announced that order, it seemed like we should follow suit really quickly,” he said. “But then it took us (three) days to figure it out.

“I’ve been vindicated,” he added. “But that’s not really my purpose.”