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Morning Lookout: Be prepared for wildfire season, county enters yellow tier

Good Morning! I’m back today after a day off and thanks again to Mark Conley for filling in! It’s Wednesday, May 19 and it will be mostly sunny with a high of 64.

Weather will be top of mind this evening as we are expecting high winds and an elevated fire risk in parts of the county. More on that lower down. Meanwhile, with fire season officially upon us, our Cypress Hansen created a comprehensive Wildfire Resource Center with everything you need — important phone numbers, checklists, evacuation routes, etc. — to be ready for what’s already been a busy season.

Today, the least-restrictive yellow tier COVID-19 restrictions kick in here, allowing for businesses to continue expanding their occupancy levels. This was made possible by low daily case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths — a trend that is mirrored at the statewide level. However, even as the state is hurtling towards a full reopening in less than a month, mixed mask messaging from the CDC and the state is causing confusion for local business owners trying to navigate reopening.

And a quick note before your headlines: The Lookout Santa Cruz staff welcomed our new Business and Tech Reporter Neil Strebig this week after his week-long drive from the East Coast. As Neil gets settled in, feel free to drop him a note with story ideas, tips or just to say hi at

With that, here’s your news:

Fire season and elevated risk tonight

Gusts could hit 40-50 mph during the NWS wind advisory.
(National Weather Service)

Gusty winds, elevated fire risk on tap for Santa Cruz Mountains: The Santa Cruz Mountains will see gusty winds — and elevated fire risk — later tonight into tomorrow morning, the National Weather Service warns. A wind advisory is in place for the Santa Cruz Mountains and other parts of the Bay Area beginning at 5 p.m. tonight with the expectation of gusts of about 25-35 mph with peaks of 40-50 mph. Read more of what’s in the forecast here.

Firefighters battle the Hennessy fire in Vacaville, Calif., in August. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters battle the Hennessy fire in Vacaville, Calif., in August. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
(Kevin Painchaud - Lookout Santa Cruz)

Resource Center: Everything you need to be prepared before, during and after a wildfire: To help you keep you and your family safe during wildfire season, our Cypress Hansen built a comprehensive Wildfire Resource Center — a one-stop guide to everything you need to be prepared for a wildfire. The resource center is in three parts focusing on pre-fire season prep, what you should do during the high-risk summer months and what to do in the event of a wildfire. It also contains downloadable information that you can print out and keep handy.

To see Lookout’s full Wildfire Resource Center, click here.

It’s California wildfire season. But firefighters say federal hotshot crews are understaffed: The U.S. Forest Service is running short of its most experienced and elite firefighters in the country — the forestry crews known as hotshots, who travel the nation putting out wildfires. A combination of low pay, competition from state and local fire departments, and exhaustion from longer and more devastating fire seasons has eroded the federal government’s ability to hire new firefighters and retain the most skilled. Read more from our partners at the LA Times here.

READ ALSO: Running out of water and time: How unprepared is California for 2021’s drought? (CalMatters)

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Local beat

An initial rendering shows how the Church Street library site could be used for affordable housing, parking and a plaza.
An initial rendering shows how the Church Street library site could be used for affordable housing, parking and a plaza or park. The city is in the process of gauging what the public wants to fill the property across from City Hall.
(Courtesy city of Santa Cruz)

A park, a food hall or apartments? All are being considered for the site of the old Santa Cruz library: Santa Cruz’s downtown library will move from a 52-year-old building into a new mixed-use structure in coming years. So what’s to become of the current library, on Church Street? Since the building is too old to be renovated into a modern library space, the city has been soliciting ideas for what to put in the space. Two main concepts have emerged for the site: a plaza/park with housing and parking, and a community or commercial space in the repurposed building plus parking. Read more about what’s being proposed and how to weigh in on the issue from our Isabella Cueto here.

The Progress Pride Flag hands below the U.S. flag outside the Santa Cruz County Office of Education on Tuesday.
The Progress Pride Flag hands below the U.S. flag outside the Santa Cruz County Office of Education on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Why rainbow flags are going up at schools across Santa Cruz County: In the first coordinated effort of its kind, schools across Santa Cruz County are raising the rainbow flag in honor of the May 22 birthday of Bay Area gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk. The idea for this year’s commemoration came out of an LGBTQ+ task force composed of representatives from all local districts with the goal of standing in solidarity with young LGBTQ+ community members because of the unique mental health challenges they faced during the pandemic. Read more about how you can get involved in the effort from our Nick Ibarra here.

Three times as many people bike to work in Santa Cruz County than the national average.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Bikes, cars & safe co-habitation: Santa Cruz is among the most dangerous cycling counties in the state: While May is Bike Month and a celebration of the cyclist’s paradise that Santa Cruz County is, some avid riders balance their love of the sport with personal experiences of how dangerous sharing the road with cars can be. This is especially important here as Santa Cruz County is more widely affected than most: with three times as many people bike to work than the national average, the county is among the state’s leaders in cyclist fatalities and injuries. Read more from our Laurel Bushman here.

COVID 2021 Updates

Harry Brown, left, and his wife, Kathy Schaefer, of Laguna Beach, join friends dining and watching pedestrians walk by

Santa Cruz County moves into yellow tier, loosening restrictions on many businesses: After narrowly missing the yellow tier in April and May, Santa Cruz County finally attained the thresholds required to enter the yellow tier of the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.” Here are some of the changes that go into effect today:

  • Bars may open indoors at 25% capacity, or 50% if customers show proof of vaccination or negative test
  • Indoor music venues may increase to 50% capacity with proof of vaccination or negative test
  • Family entertainment centers (bowling alleys, arcades, etc) may increase to 50% or 75% with proof of vaccination or a negative test
  • Gyms may increase to 50% capacity

Read more from our Mallory Pickett here.

Keeping track of masking protocol and how to enforce it will continue to be a challenge for business owners.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Amid the muffled mask guidance, local businesses begin plotting their path back to life: Mask or no mask? The answer to that question keeps getting more muffled. With the CDC guidance on masks conflicting with that of the California Department of Public Health, the result has left some anxious downtown Santa Cruz employees and business owners questioning whether the state’s reopening plan will lead to conflict — and if things will become even more complicated once businesses must decide whether to verify if customers are vaccinated. Read more from our new Business and Tech Correspondent Neil Strebig here.

California’s rebound: COVID-19 declines dramatically even as normal life returns: With California set to fully reopen its economy in a matter of weeks, the state hit a key milestone as coronavirus-related deaths and new cases plummeted to dramatic lows. With an average daily death toll of 37 reported this past week, the state is seeing the lowest average number of daily deaths in more than a year, with a 93% drop from its peak in January. Read more statewide analysis from our partners at the LA Times here.

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Around the county...

Vintners’ Festival returns to the Santa Cruz Mountains (Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Santa Cruz company hopes to replace Styrofoam with climate-friendly option (KSBW-TV)

Watsonville orchard offers u-pick roses, outdoor fun (The Pajaronian)

That’s it for today. If you’re enjoying our coverage, please tell your family and friends about our Lookout Newsletter & Text Center, where they can sign up for all the newsletters and alerts we offer. You can also keep tabs on everything we’re publishing through the day by bookmarking our website and following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Have a great day!

Tulsi Kamath
Managing Editor