The Kern County Public Health Services Department has responded to a city of Taft plan to reopen businesses next Monday.

The health department says the city does not have the authority to let nonessential businesses open to the public, opening the door to a conflict if the city goes through with its plans.

“We are sympathetic to our businesses and want them to be able to open as soon as possible; however, we are required to operate in accordance with the governor’s orders,” public health spokeswoman Michelle Corson wrote in an email, referring to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 19 stay-at-home order. “We share the sentiment and frustration with our local cities; however, opening up businesses that are not on the governor’s list of critical essential infrastructure is not a decision that can be made by the county and the individual cities.”

After the Taft City Council voted during a special meeting Monday to send Public Health Director Matt Constantine a letter asking for guidance in developing safety guidelines for barbershops, hair salons, and other small businesses deemed nonessential by the state, the city seemed poised to flout social distancing guidelines. However, the county health department said Newsom would need to amend or lift his order before local jurisdictions would be allowed to do so.

Other cities throughout the county did not appear swayed by Taft’s actions, with many saying they would follow the health department's guidance.

Delano City Manager Maribel Reyna said the city had no plans to reopen and would continue to follow the governor’s and county’s orders.

Interim McFarland City Manager Larry Pennell said he participated in daily conference calls with the health department, along with biweekly calls with all the county's city managers, but that the city would abide by the stay-at-home order.

"As frustrating as it is, no specific date can yet be announced," he wrote in an email. "Be assured that the entire City Council is mindful of the hardships being suffered by our residents and we will return to 'new normal' operations as soon as it is safe."

The city of Bakersfield is also waiting for the county health department’s directive.

“The city recognizes that many businesses are eager to see the temporary measures currently in place to keep the public as safe as possible lifted soon,” city spokesman Joe Conroy wrote in an email. “We are also eagerly awaiting that time.”

Tehachapi spokesman Key Budge similarly maintained the city’s commitment to following the health department.

“There’s definitely people out in the community, if you watch on social media, they want America to reopen. But it’s not our call,” he said. “This is coming from the federal government, the state government, and at the county level. We here at the city are waiting for that direction.”

Only Ridgecrest appeared willing to consider an alternate path. Ridgecrest Mayor Peggy Breeden said the city would hold a virtual town hall Wednesday to listen to residents’ concerns before coming up with any potential reopening plans.

Kern County supervisors have established a task force designed to give guidance on which businesses are allowed to be open, and which procedures businesses should follow once coronavirus prevention measures are lifted.

At a news conference Tuesday, Newsom said the state was "weeks, not months away" from making meaningful changes to the stay-at-home order.

Once lifted, local officials hope the economy can be rebooted in an efficient and safe manner.

“While we must not jeopardize the health and lives of those we represent, we must be prepared to reopen the economy when it is safe to do so,” Corson said. “We want businesses to open safely and responsibly when the governor lifts his orders.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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