This week, Santa Clara County moved into the State of California’s COVID-19 “orange” tier from the previous “red” tier. The shift indicates that the county’s risk has moved from “substantial” to “moderate” based on COVID-19 case rates and test positivity.

Russell Furr

Russell Furr, associate vice provost for Environmental Health & Safety, answers questions about how the shift in the county’s risk tier affects Stanford. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Santa Clara County recently issued an updated public health order addressing the move to the orange tier. Russell Furr, associate vice provost for Environmental Health & Safety at Stanford, discusses with Stanford Report where the university’s COVID-19 response stands and how the shift in the county’s risk tier affects Stanford.


In general, what is the effect on Stanford when these state and county guidelines change?

The state and county each have had COVID-19 guidelines. Whichever set of guidelines is stricter on a given topic is the one that prevails.

What we’ve heard from the Stanford community is that people want clarity, and it sometimes has been a challenge with two sets of intersecting requirements that were frequently changing. The county is now moving to a place where they are more closely aligned with the state. With the shift to the orange tier, the county is generally allowing activities that the state allows in that tier. However, there are still exceptions where the county has stricter requirements.

While the state and county rules provide an important foundation, in some areas Stanford has adopted its own additional precautions to fit the unique circumstances of our own community, and to protect the health and safety of our people here. We have a residential community with thousands of people in congregate living, and people at Stanford are also involved in an extremely broad array of work activities, some of them traditionally done in close quarters.


What is Stanford’s general approach right now?

Stanford is trying to proceed in a deliberate and thoughtful way that continues the precautions that will protect our community, while gradually providing more flexibility in areas where risk levels allow it. Our approach is very much about learning as we go and applying that knowledge to improve how we can limit the spread of the virus, and to enable critical educational and research activities. By adhering diligently to our public health protocols, members of the Stanford community, particularly the students and postdoctoral scholars living on campus and everyone who is safely continuing research on campus, have contributed enormously to our ability to gradually increase academic activities.

We’ve been meeting regularly with Santa Clara County, and our comfort in taking some of the steps we’ve taken – including allowing more research activities, introducing the concept of student households and allowing some indoor classes – has partly been a result of that ongoing dialogue. We understand that the county is trying to provide greater flexibility, but not open everything all at once. Our path is consistent with that approach.

An important thing to keep in mind is that we are still working toward bringing back two classes of undergraduates for the winter quarter (frosh and sophomores). A big part of our effort right now is about making sure that is possible. We have to have the right conditions in place to allow a significant increase in our on-campus population. Everything is proceeding in that direction right now, and the provost is hoping to provide an update in the first half of November about how conditions are supporting the return of undergraduates. But it’s a further reason to proceed with care and deliberation.

Bottom line, we don’t expect massive immediate changes as a result of the shift from the red tier to the orange tier. We do expect to continue to make small adjustments over these last few weeks of the quarter, to provide people with greater flexibility. If we see problems and cases rise, we also could move in the direction of more tightening.


What if anything is changing right now as Santa Clara County moves to the orange tier?

Right now we’re in the process of implementing our recently introduced policies allowing essential visitors and “households” of up to 8 people for students in housing assigned by Residential & Dining Enterprises. Details about this were shared with students even before the shift to the orange tier.

“We will continue looking at small adjustments we can make through the rest of this quarter under the latest guidance. But it’s also essential that everyone continue doing the main things we all have been doing – physical distancing, wearing face coverings, minimizing interaction with people outside one’s own household. The threat of COVID-19 is still very real.”

—Russell Furr

Associate Vice Provost for Environmental Health & Safety

For the relatively small number of in-person classes we have currently, under the orange tier our In-Person Instructional Activities Recovery Plan allows for somewhat greater capacity indoors if there is a need for a class to meet indoors. There also are increased capacity limits for academic meetings, subject to the protocols in the recovery plan.

In the research area, we opened access to laboratories and libraries earlier. Based on a pilot process we’ve been doing, starting in early November we’ll be allowing non-laboratory based researchers and instructors (including faculty, research staff, postdocs and graduate students) to use their offices for activities that can’t be done remotely, when their departments are ready for it and provide approval.

In athletics, the move to the orange tier allows for contact practice and competition in Santa Clara County, without spectators, and with many protocols to protect health and safety. For instance, the county requires all student-athletes participating in collegiate athletics to live only with their own teammates. As a result, most student-athletes will be living in Mirrielees, joined by residential and athletics staff but not other students, in order to support everyone’s health. Student-athletes living on campus will be subject to the same 8-person “household” rules that other students are. Some student-athletes will continue living off campus, following protocols required by the county for off-campus living.

We will continue looking at small adjustments we can make through the rest of this quarter under the latest guidance. But it’s also essential that everyone continue doing the main things we all have been doing – physical distancing, wearing face coverings, minimizing interaction with people outside one’s own household. The threat of COVID-19 is still very real.


Many of the university community’s questions are around gatherings. What is the latest on that front?

Gatherings are one of the hardest parts of what we are going through. People need to interact socially. And yet, we know that the interaction of people from different households is something that facilitates transmission of the virus, particularly when strong health and safety protocols are not in place.

Stanford’s current policies are summarized here. University-led academic activities and necessary university business meetings among Stanford employees on the main campus are allowed outdoors with a 50-person maximum now, and indoors with a 30-person maximum or 50 percent of room capacity, whichever is less. Certain activities such as protest activities and religious observances are allowed outdoors with no more than 200 people, and with prior registration and review from the university.

Under our new households policy for students in R&DE-assigned housing, members of a registered household (consisting of no more than 8 people within a residential facility or area) can socialize without face coverings either indoors or outdoors, though face coverings must be worn when in proximity to others who are not part of the household.

I expect we will be providing more flexibility around gatherings in a gradual and stepwise way, after we’ve had a chance to implement the new households policy and gain experience with it, and once we’re confident that the winter quarter move-in of additional undergraduates to the campus has been successful.


What is the situation in San Mateo County, where Stanford Redwood City is located?

While San Mateo County continues to be in the “red” tier, for the most part we have been able to keep the same sets of rules for both Stanford and Stanford Redwood City. For example, building signage requirements are slightly different, and the process for reporting positives varies, but the underlying principles are the same. The capacity limits for necessary business meetings in San Mateo County are also lower (no more than 25% of room capacity or 30 people, whichever is less).


Where can the Stanford community find the latest on the university’s current policies and protocols?

The COVID-19 home page of the Health Alerts website summarizes the basics of our current policies, with links to other pages for details.