Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Answer: What's the latest regulation about COVID-19?

Finding the latest information about COVID-19 is sometimes tricky. Here's why...     

As you might recall, last week I was planning on visiting a friend's house for a very small outdoor garden dinner party.  But there was a concern about following the latest COVID-19 social distancing directions.  

Monet's Garden Party - Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (right section), 1865–1866, with Gustave Courbet, Frédéric Bazille and Camille Doncieux, first wife of the artist, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Monet's Lunch on the grass - Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. My aspirational picnic. 

Is it true that, as of today, one should NOT meet in a friend's backyard for a barbecue?  Seems odd. 

Nevertheless, I thought I'd spend a few minutes and see if I could find the relevant state regulation.     

I did the obvious searches and spent about 15 minutes searching around, but failed!  What?  

This led to the Challenge for this week:  
1.  Can you find the local--and CURRENT--COVID regulations about what is permissible behavior in your town/city/county/state?  Once you've found them, what was your strategy?  

This is clearly news you can use in our time of COVID. 

Let me tell you what didn't work!  I did searches that were variations on: 

     [ latest regulations COVID-19 ] 

 But this was unsatisfactory for many reasons. Oh, I found lots of results, but "latest regulation" (or rules, or guidelines) appears on ALL of the regulation documents.  Bottom line here: a search term like "latest" is almost totally useless.  All of those press reports will say "latest" or "current," but they're not the "most recent" with respect to my search... I need a different way to search for that content.  

What I eventually realized is that I needed to find the authority that is issuing guidance for where I lived.  What would that be?  

After reading a lot of announcements and news reports, I finally figured out that ALL of the official guidance were all issued by someone in authority.  That is SOMEONE issued (and signed) the notice.  

This changes my Challenge to ... who is the authority for my city/county/state/country?  

 Once I know who that person is, then we can do a more targeted search.  My next search was:  

     [ health officer City of Palo Alto ] 

And quickly found out that the position is called "health director" at the city level, and "health officer" at the county level.  (I suspect that's not standard, but rather just local traditions.)  But it means that we need to broaden our search.  Next I tried: 

     [ health director City of Palo Alto ]  

Which got me to the

     [ health director  County of Santa Clara ] 

tells us that this is Sara Cody.  We can triangulate the Santa Clara directive by looking for: 

     [ Sara Cody Santa Clara COVID-19
          directive OR regulations] 

This is pretty good--lots of results that are relevant.  

HOWEVER... the results are from the past 3 months.  If you read them all, they're contradictory in the aggregate; the regulations keep changing over time.  

But we can filter the results by time.  Like this:  

Filter your results by clicking on Tools then click on Any Time and select
your appropriate time segment.  (I'm going to use "Past week")  

Once you're restricted your results to the past week, the search problem becomes much easier.   (You might have to use "Past month" or a custom range, depending on how often the results change.)  

In my case, using the name of the Health Director for the County worked well.  

That finds us the relevant county-wide regulations.  If we apply to same strategy to the state (California, in my case), we learn that the Health Officer (note the change in terminology) for California is  Sonia Y Angell, MD.  Following our pattern from before:  

     [ Sonia Y. Angell California COVID-19
         coronavirus directive OR regulations ] 

and then limiting the results to the past few days or weeks finds us all of the relevant documents.  

Another, similar approach is to look for the agency that's issuing the guidance.  In California's case, the agency that Sonia Y. Angell runs is the California Department of Public Health within the  State of California's Health and Human Services Agency.  Searching for the agency name also gives great results:  

     [ California Department of Public Health
          COVID-19 coronavirus directive
          OR regulations ] 

For this query, the first result is the Public Health Orders for COVID-19, which covers exactly what we're looking for.  In there it says:  
Example 1: A family hosts a birthday party in the backyard of their house. The backyard is only big enough to allow 15 people to easily maintain 6-foot social distancing between households at all times. No more than 15 people may be present at the party.

This guidance is dated July 20, which was the day-of our backyard barbecue, so it seems to cover my question pretty precisely.   We had 4 people in a yard that could easily contain 15 people at a 6-foot radius, so I think we're pretty good.  

Alas, a similar strategy does NOT work for the entire country.  It's easy to find the Surgeon General of the US (Jerome Adams), but it's difficult to find any definitive directions (let alone regulations or directives) from the chief medical officer of the United States.  That's not a failure of searching, but a failure of communication.  

As far as I can tell, unlike many other countries, the US does not have any federal mandates about social gatherings of the kind that motivated this Challenge.  

But it brings up an interesting point:  Determining that something is NOT there is really difficult. 

I wish I had a definitive strategy for you, but this is the eternal problem of research, it's often impossible to know that something does NOT exist.  (You can show that something doesn't exist in a closed collection, but in this case, showing that the relevant authority has not yet posted a regulation is really difficult.  All you can do is to show "show your work," telling us what you searched for, and you didn't.)  

Search Lessons 

1. Time filtering lets you find current content.  In the case of regulations and late-breaking information about pandemics, you certainly want to see the most current material. Be sure you know how to filter by "past 24 hours"  "last month" or even better, "custom range."  

2.  Sometimes a person-centered (or organization-centered) approach is best.  That is, when searching for official documents from government agencies, they're nearly always signed by the relevant person (the official in charge) or the relevant agency is listed on the document.  


I tracked down the author of the original article in our local newspaper, the one that warned about not being able to have a backyard barbecue.  The journalist was kind enough to tell me that her source was the Assistant Santa Clara County Counsel who spoke during a county supervisor's public town hall meeting.  It seems that the Counsel was talking about the Santa Clara County Directive (which was, oddly enough, issued by Santa Clara County Emergency Operations Center, but echoes the state-wide directive issued a week earlier).  In any case, neither the County nor State directives explicitly forbid backyard dining, but they do give guidance about number of guests and size, as you see above.  

After all that, I determined that I was, according to the directives, completely within bounds.  

It was a wonderful dinner outside, under the trees... 

Search on! 


  1. Thanks Dr. Russell for giving all the steps you did. In my case authorities were clear to me and in the municipal part not many rules. There are the same since day one and not tell any news. Maybe because it's the same.

    About Surgeon General of the US,Jerome Adams, I read what he posts on Twitter. He shares the basic rules and links.

    Yesterday, I was watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta talking about numbers. President Trump and President AMLO say that our countries ( The United States in your case. Mexico in mine) are doing good job showing deaths per million. Dr Gupta says we must measure percentage as a whole. I think that is also the correct way. How you would measure? In any case the whole world is with lots of problems with Covid. Here almost 6 months and still in red while other states are orange

    1. I saw Jerome Adams Tweets as well, but these aren't official announcements--they're mostly person-to-person suggestions. Nice, but not official.

      WRT COVID analytics, the issue is that there are many ways to measure the effects COVID-19 is having on the population--it's impossible to select a single statistic that represents everything. The current state of confusion comes from people who want a single number to tell them how well we're doing. That's super hard: each stat (% of deaths overall vs. cases/capita vs. excess deaths, etc.) shows another aspect of the problem. But in no statistic are we doing very well.

    2. I agree with you. No statistics are telling good news. And, worst, many believe that we're doing good and do not follow rules.

      About Jerome Adams, as you say not official but almost. The title gives him more validation. Of course it's better read him than many news that many times, have as we have seen, a tendency to say something in every country. Here in Mexico, President Obrador doesn't wear mask so people feel is "official" that masks doesn't work. And it's not real. So hopefully people searches and acts thinking in any case it's better to be in the safer side.

      As an example, today finished Martin Lindstrom's free ebook on flying. And it's is incredible what we don't do and what we do thinking nothing happens. And in these days that is not safe

      About YouTube, hopefully as you say, soon becomes discoverable. Maybe searching with captions autogenerated?

    3. Hi Remmij and wait to read what happens on airplanes and in restaurants.

      Following Dr. Russell's path, searched on Twitter [Sonia Angell] I removed the Y because in Spanish is the same as and, so that could bring results for Sonia and for Angell.



      CA Public Health in Spanish and in English

      Dr. Sonia Y. Angell, CA Public Health Director

      Remmij's gatherings link

  2. Replies
    1. Great updates! As you're pointing out, the current state of guidance / regulations constantly changes. The somewhat annoying thing about the YouTube video is that the spoken content isn't discoverable. (Let's hope that changes soon!)

  3. Cripes. For where I live (Sydney, Australia) I could tell you four or five websites off the top of my head without even going to Google, that have the current restrictions as well as answers about how they apply to individual circumstances- NSW Govt website, NSW health, ABC News, The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald. And just for fun I just searched [covid restrictions nsw] and those were the first five results.

    The fact it takes a professional searcher 15 minutes to work out whether a backyard bbq is allowed where you live sheds a little light on why things are so bad in the US.

  4. Yes, I was amazed at this too. Our regulations come from the government and are simple. Ashley Bloomfield is New Zealand's Fauci. People are getting tattoos of him and putting him on sweatshirts and teatowels! We are now being warned to get some masks in case we start to have community transmission.

  5. a couple generals: used [covid cook out]
    the aarp

  6. This is very useful. But I have a problem. When using a smartphone, I'm not finding the TOOLS option in my search results page. Where is it? How do I do the time selection like you described in the article? I'm going to screen share what I see on my phone

    1. Looking into this for you. It is odd.

    2. Looks like there was a temporary outage. It's back now. When you do the search, scroll the "tools bar" (just below the search field -- it says "ALL IMAGES VIDEOS NEWS...) -- on the far right you should see "SEARCH TOOLS" -- click on that, and you'll see the time filter options)