More Calif. Counties Reopen, With Others on the Way

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The state of California is still in the second of four phases of reopening the closed sectors of the economy, but some counties are advancing “deeper into phase two,” said Governor Gavin Newsom, adding that more major milestones are “weeks away.”

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The governor explained this week how some parts of the state are slowly reopening and relaxing the shelter-in-place restrictions, including 24 counties that have “self-attested,” and certified with containment and protection plans. State officials also believe more counties are in a position to follow suit during the next few weeks. For example, Sacramento County officials announced Tuesday that the state allowed them to reopen dine-in restaurants and malls.

Newsom said officials estimate that about 53 of the 58 counties in the state will soon be eligible to advance, but he warned that “not everyone will move into this phase, and that eligibility is conditioned on the criteria that we’re putting out.”

The second stage of the reopening process allows some retail, manufacturing, and logistics businesses to open with restrictions. Last week, it expanded to include dine-in restaurants and some shopping malls. Newsom said over the next few weeks, “we are moving forward to allow some of the larger counties to continue to make progress deeper into phase two, and to do so effective immediately, but at their own pace.”

“In addition to that, sporting events — pro sports — [can begin] in that first week or so of June, without spectators, and with modifications and very prescriptive conditions,” Newsom said. “A number of other sectors of our economy will open up soon…That includes, for example, getting a haircut. Which is very meaningful.”

Newsom said the state has seen a decline in hospitalizations by 7.5 percent over a 14-day period, along with an 8.7-percent decline in the number of ICU patients. He said that was an important indicator for officials to allow some parts of the state to reopen. California has also ramped up its coronavirus testing programs, which tested 57,000 Californians on Sunday alone.

The businesses in certain counties were allowed to open up based on their “capacity to test, to trace, to track, to isolate, to provide protection from the most vulnerable in their community,” as well as their capacity to deal with a hospital surge. To move further into stage two, a county must notify the California Department of Public Health, and certify that it has met the readiness criteria, and that it can mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Newsom explained that officials are now more focused on the virus’ positivity rate, meaning the percentage of people who test positive for coronavirus, rather than the overall number.

“As testing increases, the positivity rate will become more important than the total number of positive tests,” he said. “We want to see that rate below 8 percent.”

Newsom has emphasized the state’s “regional variance” in the reopening process, acknowledging that conditions vary greatly in different areas of California. The state’s roadmap to reopening includes giving some counties more flexibility than others to move quicker through the second stage. The first number of counties in Northern California started that process after the roadmap was announced earlier this month. 

“Regional variance” is a recognition that California’s population of about 40 million people is larger than 21 states combined, and “that one size does not fit all” for such a large state.

“Conditions across the state are unique and distinctive depending where you are,” he said. “We expect that if we hold the rate of transmissions, hold the positivity rate down, we continue to do justice to the hospitalization and ICU numbers, that we’ll be making announcements statewide — not just with the regional variances…but in-store retail to be loosened up.”

Denser areas of the state, particularly places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, are expected to take longer to reopen, as the criteria includes a reduction in the rate of new coronavirus cases, adequate testing and tracing, and sufficient health care system capacity. 

L.A. County is expected to be one of the last regions to reopen due to higher numbers of coronavirus cases. There are almost 81,800 positive cases in the state, and 39,573 cases are in L.A. County alone. This week, county officials announced they are aiming to reopen the economy by the Fourth of July. 

“Because many more people are out than even a week ago, the risk for spreading COVID-19 is greater,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of L.A. County Public Health, in a statement. “It is so important that we all continue to practice physical distancing and wearing cloth face coverings at all times when we are out and around other people to help prevent sharp increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”

When the state reaches the next two stages, higher-risk sectors will be allowed to open, such as gyms, spas, and entertainment venues like movie theaters or sports venues without live audiences. But they will also include restrictions such as limits to the size of gatherings.