Coronavirus: San Mateo County saves graduation, allows 'highly regulated vehicle gatherings'

SAN MATEO, Calif. (KGO) -- This graduation season, any typical end-of-the-school-year senior milestone is sorely missed.

However, San Mateo County is doing what it can to save graduations.

By Tuesday, a new order will allow people to get together for certain "highly regulated vehicle-based gatherings."

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"Down the road, it's one of those events that kids won't easily forget," County Superintendent of Schools, Nancy Magee told ABC7 News.

Magee said it's a way to recognize the thousands of students whose senior year was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order, by County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow, limits the number of vehicles to 200, and the event timeline to three hours. It also requires a set plan and security.

"The order requires the occupants of the vehicle to be members of the same household," a press release by the county's Emergency Operations Center read.

Those inside are not allowed to leave the vehicle at the gathering, "Except to use a restroom or collect an item such as a diploma."

Additionally, if the windows are open, people are required to wear face coverings.

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For this reason, the order does not permit motorcycles, convertibles with the top open, vehicles with no doors, or bicycles to attend the gatherings.

"This is one of those orders that feels good," Superintendent Magee explained. "We worked hard to make an additional opportunity for students to celebrate graduations. So, that opportunity is tonight at midnight."

The San Mateo County Event Center is one venue now offering graduation packages.

Staff would focus the same format as a Drive Inn theater- using big screens and the ability to broadcast to each vehicle.

"Given our vast volume of parking lot space, it was kind of a no-brainer to team with a contractor- an Audio Visual contractor we work with," Event Center CEO, Dana Stoehr said.

Any scheduled event would be held at the center's West Parking Lot. It's able to hold 600 vehicles, allowing for plenty of space to social distance.

"We can certainly put out the cones, put up a stage, let the teachers speak, and provide the venue accouterments so that a school can just come in, pop it up super quickly, have their graduation, honor their students, let them be with their families, and really preserve that rite of passage," Stoehr told ABC7 News.

She continued, "We'll provide the stage and the portable restrooms, and all that they need. We're getting super close to the deadline of graduation, so we wanted to make it kind of a one-stop-shopping."

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"I think it would be fun to at least see everyone, even if it's from a distance, or with masks on," graduating senior, Isabella Triunfo told ABC7 News.

She said her high school has already settled on a virtual graduation.

Triunfo said with every missed milestone, she only wishes she could go back and share this message at the start of her senior year.

"Don't try to rush it. Don't try to get straight to college and graduate, and everything at the end," she said. "Because you're not going to get this time again. You're not going to get another senior year of high school."

Superintendent Magee said the move by Dr. Morrow is an example of the resiliency of the community. The county, finding ways in which it can still celebrate and recognize the positive, even during the pandemic.

"One of the biggest lessons we ever have is what life hands us every day," Magee said. "So, if we can take these challenges, and find solutions and ways to move forward together, that's really what we're all about."

Stoehr added, "It's such a lift for parents, kids, event center staff, school staff- everybody! It really brings a sense of joy that we haven't had a lot of lately."

Traveling to and attending these vehicle-based gatherings will be considered essential activity.

To read the full text of the order, click here.

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