Beginning Monday, restaurants can welcome diners outdoors and hair and nail salons can reopen.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Citing a drop in hospitalizations and the steadying of new coronavirus cases, California officials on Monday canceled regional lockdown orders, giving restaurants and other businesses that have been shuttered for nearly two months the green light to reopen.
In an early morning announcement, state health officials said the improving trends are convincing enough for the state to scrap the emergency plan enacted in early December as well as lift a longstanding 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on nonessential activities. As a result, restaurants in the state’s largest counties including Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and San Francisco will be allowed to resume outdoor dining.
The California Department of Public Health said that while the pandemic remains deadly, there are signs the Golden State withstood the holiday surge and has turned a “critical corner.”
“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly in a statement. “Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and frontline medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared.”
Amid a record-high number of hospitalizations and a post-Thanksgiving rash of new infections, Governor Gavin Newsom on Dec. 3 scrapped the existing color-coded tiered reopening system in favor of a stricter approach. The Democratic governor said the state was at a “tipping point” and that mandatory three-week business closures and a curfew were needed to save hospital space and more importantly, intensive care unit beds.
The plan placed counties into five separate regions, with lockdown orders to be activated once the region’s combined ICU capacity dropped below 15%. In a matter of days after Newsom’s announcement, the Southern California, San Joaquin, Bay Area and Greater Sacramento regions all plunged into the emergency restrictions.
While the restrictions were eventually lifted for Sacramento, as of Monday they were still in place for most of the other regions.
Newsom explained the decision was largely based on the fact the state’s modeling projects ICU capacity to rise above 15% in each region over the coming weeks. By February, the state expects a statewide cumulative ICU capacity of 30%.
Under Monday’s new order, individual counties will now be placed back into the tiered-reopening framework the state installed last summer. According to officials, most counties will fall back in the most restrictive purple tier, under which indoor dining remains banned.
In what amounted to a third lockdown for many counties across the state, the emergency order forced the closure of bars, wineries, hair salons and indoor religious ceremonies. It also spurred a new rash of unemployment, as California’s jobless rate increased in December for the first time in seven months.
Critics viewed the holiday order as heavy-handed and unclear, as the governor and officials struggled during press conferences in recent weeks to explain how decisions were being made in regard to how and when regions could move forward. Counties and businesses complained that the state wasn’t being upfront or releasing their projections about ICU data to the public.
For example, the state without fanfare exempted the Greater Sacramento region two weeks ago even though its ICU capacity was well below the 15% threshold. In the last ICU update given over the weekend, only the rural Northern California region and Bay Area are above 15% estimated capacity.
Despite the criticism, state officials on Monday cast the ICU framework as a success.
“Californians heard the urgent message to stay home as much as possible and accepted that challenge to slow the surge and save lives,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, department of public health director and state public health officer. “Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains. Covid-19 is still here and still deadly, so our work is not over, but it’s important to recognize our collective actions saved lives and we are turning a critical corner.”
Dr. Ghaly hinted last week that changes were likely coming to the coronavirus restrictions after the predicted holiday surge didn’t fully materialize. He noted that hospitalizations dropped 10% and that the state’s effective reproductive number — a key indicator of community spread — has dropped below 1, meaning the average infected Californian spreads the disease to less than one person.
As of Monday morning, Newsom had yet to address the media about the significant change to the state’s pandemic fight. But his critics were quick to react.
State Republicans accused Newsom of caving to political pressure and trying to shift attention from the GOP’s fledgling recall attempt.
“And just like that, the health threat of the virus became less important than the political threat of a recall,” said state Senator Melissa Melendez on Twitter.
“It’s ‘science’. Political science,” added Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher.
The announcement came as a surprise to state Democrats, as well.
“If you think state legislators were blindsided by, and confused about, the shifting & confusing public health directives, you’d be correct,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Laura Friedman.
Hours after the announcement, Newsom told reporters there was little time to waste and therefore informing the Legislature wasn’t sensible. Besides, Newsom claimed, local health officials knew the switch was in the works over the weekend.
“Many people were privy to these facts; many people were actually very directly engaged in the adjudication of these facts across the health care delivery spectrum,” Newsom said.
According to Johns Hopkins University, California has confirmed the most cases of any state with 3.17 million and is second in deaths with 37,138.
Under the colored system first implemented this past August, counties are placed into four tiers based on new case rates and test positivity. Individual counties have the ability to enact stricter business restrictions if deemed necessary.
The state will resume updating the tier assignments each Tuesday.
After explaining the rationale behind Monday’s decision, Newsom acknowledged frustration with the “conservative” strategy that has resulted in California trailing most states in terms of vaccinations issued per capita.
Newsom promised the state would take a more direct role going forward and warned it would start reallocating supplies if counties and providers don’t move quickly. He said data and supply issues continue to hold back the Golden State more than a month into the vaccination effort.
“The whole idea is a more unified, statewide network approach,” Newsom said. “We want a little bit more of a command function to control variability.”
After a rocky start, Newsom said California has tripled its pace in recent days and has administered over 130,000 doses in a single day on multiple occasions. He said California will have no problem playing its part in President Joe Biden’s goal of 100 million vaccines in 100 days, assuming the federal government can keep up with demand.
“We need to move,” Newsom said.
On Tuesday Dr. Ghaly is expected to detail the state’s new vaccine strategy which calls for residents over 65 as well as frontline workers and teachers to receive their first doses.
Los Angeles County health officials said Monday about 77% of the doses the county has received — nearly 526,000 — have gone into people’s arms. They said the county has so far received fewer than 200,000 doses a week, a slow start they said is unlikely to speed up any time soon.
So far the state has confirmed 90 cases of the so-called “U.K. variant” and almost 500 of a strain first identified in Denmark. Ghaly said little is known yet about the new strains but that he’s certain the numbers don’t reflect the full range of cases.