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.