California Cracks Door to Economy, Schools an Inch With Tiered Reopening

California Governor Gavin Newsom. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue trending downward California’s second reopening wave will be deliberate and plodding under rules introduced Friday by Governor Gavin Newsom.

The long-awaited framework places features four tiers and will require counties to show multiple weeks of declining coronavirus cases before advancing. Nearly 40 of the state’s 58 counties are listed in the most restrictive tier, meaning indoor dining, religious ceremonies and schools will remain closed for the foreseeable future.

After being criticized for the state’s initial reopening in May that led to a second surge, Newsom said counties will have to be more patient under new rules that force them to wait at least 21 days to advance out of a given tier.

“Covid-19 will be with us for a long time and we need to adapt,” Newsom said during a press conference. “We’re going to be more stubborn this time and have a mandatory wait time between moves.”

Newsom said counties have been placed in four color-coded tiers based on two factors: number of cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests. The previous “watchlist” in place for the last two months included hospitalizations and available ICU beds, among others.

The trimmed-down system debuts with the state’s most populous counties — except San Diego — in the bottom tier. San Diego and seven other counties begin in the red or substantial tier, where restaurants can begin allowing indoor dining at minimized capacity and schools can allow students back in modified capacity if they remain in the tier for two weeks.

As part of Friday’s announcement, Newsom debuted a website that will allow Californians to check on their tiers and see what exactly is open in their counties. Residents can enter their county or zip code and choose from dozens of activities or industries.

For example, in San Diego and counties in the red tier, retail stores are allowed to be open at 50% capacity as can indoor gyms at 10% capacity. The state is also releasing a new ad campaign encouraging Californians to fight the spread of “the Rona.”

Another notable change is barbershops and salons will be allowed to reopen in all counties regardless of the tier once the new rules take effect Monday. The industry has sued Newsom for previously closing barbershops during the pandemic.

Amusement parks were not included in the reopening rules, but Newsom said talks are ongoing with Disney and others in the industry. Meanwhile bars and breweries not serving food remain closed for most Californians while restaurants and wineries can continue serving outdoors. Professional sports can resume in all tiers but without audiences, while churches can’t resume indoor services until their county is out of the bottom tier. 

While Newsom called the tiered system more useable for counties and residents than the previous watchlist, he urged patience as counties will likely stay in a given tier for 3-5 weeks minimum.

“This process may seem more confusing because this may be the first time you’ve seen it, but this process is again quite simple,” Newsom described the new framework and website. “You have four tiers, four colors; those tiers attach to specific capacity within sectors where they can open up with modifications.”

The announcement comes after several major counties including San Francisco, San Diego and Orange have all seen a drop in coronavirus cases and as a result fell off the old coronavirus watchlist over the last two weeks.

Local officials have been pressing Newsom to let them resurrect their economies, expressing frustration by the lack of guidance as to who and what can resume. But the new guidance didn’t go far enough for one of Newsom’s staunchest critics, Republican state Senator Melissa Melendez.

“This is incredible, he just keeps changing the rules. I predict a revolt is coming. People simply cannot continue like this,” said Melendez in a tweet.

Business leaders like the California Business Roundtable weren’t amused by the plan either.

“Unfortunately, the governor has also sent a long-term signal to the business community that they will likely not be able to operate at a sustainable level until spring 2021 at the earliest. As the rest of the country begins on a path to economic recovery, we are gravely concerned that California will see a wave of permanent job loss, especially since the Legislature has not passed any policies that will help businesses adapt to this ‘new normal,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, in a statement.

Statewide, 4,200 people are hospitalized due to Covid-19, down from a peak of over 7,000 on July 21.  

Along with the coronavirus, California continues to make progress on a series of lightning-sparked wildfires that began nearly two weeks ago.

The state’s main focus has been several so-called lightning complex fires burning in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. A trio of fires has caused over 100,000 people to flee their homes and simultaneously left millions breathing smoky, unhealthy air.

Taking advantage of favorable weather, crews have increased containment of the massive SCU Fire to 35%. The blaze is the second largest in state history, burning over 372,000 acres in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and Merced counties.

On the coast, the CZU Fire has torched redwood forests and marched west to the sandy beaches of Santa Cruz County. The 82,000-acre fire that Newsom says has been exacerbated by climate change is now 26% contained.

Lastly, the LNU Fire has torched 371,000 acres and destroyed over 1,000 structures in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo counties. Containment of the third largest blaze in state history was at 35% Friday afternoon.

Over 730 wildfires ignited mostly by a series of 14,000 lightning strikes have quickly burned 1.4 million acres, an area larger than Delaware.

Newsom capped the hour-long press conference by saying his office has reached a deal with the Legislature on the extension of an eviction moratorium and that he was prepared to sign a bill banning the sale of flavored tobacco. Lawmakers have until the end of Monday to approve and send Newsom new bills.

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