With nearly 1,000 COVID-19 cases in Riverside County, county officials have issued a ban on public gatherings and mandated that residents cover their faces when leaving their homes.

Dr. Cameron Kaiser, public health officer of Riverside County, issued the order, effective April 6, saying that everyone, including essential workers should wear a face covering when leaving their homes. Face coverings include bandanas, scarves, neck gaiters or other clothing that does not have visible holes. Residents should not purchase N95 or surgical masks, as these limited resources are needed for the health care community and first responders.

“While more and more Riverside County residents are getting COVID-19, not everybody’s getting the message,” Kaiser said. “It started with staying home, social distance and covering your face. But now we change from saying that you ‘should’ to saying that you ‘must.’”

The “no gathering” order does not apply to essential businesses, including health care offices, grocery stores or gas stations. However, these businesses must use social distancing measures to keep clients and customers 6 feet apart, and all employees must now wear face coverings.

All churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are prohibited from all in-person gatherings; it includes drive-in religious services.

“Palm Sunday, Passover and Easter are sacred days. The best way to practice our love for God is loving our fellow neighbor. That means staying home and observing the holidays at home,” V. Manuel Perez, 4th District Supervisor of Riverside County, said. “I also want to thank Sheriff Bianco and all our law enforcement partners for their dedicated service during this pandemic and for enforcing these orders to keep our residents and essential workers safe.”

The order runs through April 30.

Deputies Terrell Young and David Werksman, who served 15 and 22 years with the Riverside County sheriff’s department respectively, both succumbed to the virus Thursday, April 2. Bianco also reported that 26 sheriff’s employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while 13 inmates have been verified as infected. Two employees have been hospitalized, he said.

“We have already lost two of our deputies to this virus. I am asking all of you to honor them by staying at home,” Bianco said.

As of the time of this posting, 799 cases were reported in Riverside County, with 46 in Temecula, 44 in Murrieta, 23 in Lake Elsinore, 35 in Menifee, 19 in Wildomar, three in Canyon Lake 18 in Hemet and nine in San Jacinto. Menifee, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore and Wildomar are each reporting the deaths of a single resident from the virus. In the unincorporated communities of Winchester and Valle Vista there are no reported cases, while four cases were reported in Anza, 12 in French Valley, two in east Hemet, one in Temescal Valley and one in Lakeland Village. Nineteen deaths were reported throughout the county.

A 20% spike in cases was reported over the weekend with an additional 134 cases and one new death, as hospitals began bracing for what was expected to be a surge in COVID-19 patients.

“We’ve heard that California COVID-19 cases may be slowing down, but that is not what we are seeing in Riverside County,” Dr. Geoffrey Leung of the Riverside University Health System said Friday, April 3. “Our cases continue to rise exponentially, and we have very little time to turn this around.”

Leung said the county remains on track to see 65,000 cases, 11,000 hospitalizations and 1,000 deaths by the beginning of May. He said that number of hospitalizations would be three to four times the capacity of the county’s
hospital system.

In addition to staying home and hand-washing, Leung shared four other solutions he said could help Riverside County flatten the curve: testing, enforcement, face covering and closing all nonessential businesses and gathering places.

“If we can do one of these things well … we believe we can decrease the number of cases and deaths by 50%. If we can do three of these things well, we believe we can decrease the hospitalizations, the cases and the deaths by 75%, saving nearly 700 or 800 lives or more,” Leung said. “But we have to do them well, and we have to do them now.”

At the time of this posting, more than 5,000 Riverside County residents have been tested for the virus. The local mortality rate remains slightly over 1%, according to officials.

“Anytime we lose one of our county residents it is painful; it is a tragedy. All of these individuals had families, had loved ones and friends who are grieving,” Brooke Federico, representative of Riverside County, said during a video briefing Saturday afternoon. “We absolutely need everyone to do their part: to stay inside, stay in place, maintain your space and cover your face.”

At the Lake Elsinore Diamond testing location, roughly 200 tests are being performed daily, but with the high number of county residents in need of testing, the turnaround time for an appointment is currently two weeks and growing longer each day as the number of potential COVID-19 patients continues to increase.

Testing sites are also open in Riverside at Harvest Christian Fellowship church and at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio. Current wait times at the Riverside and Indio locations were not able to be verified as of 2 p.m. Monday.

Those who want to get tested at any county site must have symptoms and have an appointment before showing up at the testing locations. Drive-ups without appointments will not be accommodated, according to a press release issued by the Riverside County Department of Public Health.

Some of the symptoms include fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose or congestion. Those who have risk of exposure may also be tested, which means exposure to a confirmed case.

“Riverside County continues to offer more options for residents to get tested,” Karen Spiegel, vice chair and 2nd District supervisor of Riverside County, said.

Kaiser announced recently that all schools will remain shuttered until June 19 due to the coronavirus pandemic, effectively closing schools – from elementary schools to universities – through the end of the academic school year. It remains unclear whether individual school districts will adjust their schedules in the future.

Kaiser also ordered all golf courses in Riverside County to shut down immediately, both public and private, in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

City News Service contributed to this story.

Kim Harris can be reached by email at valleyeditor@reedermedia.com