(CN) --- California officials on Friday bumped Los Angeles County out of the most restrictive level of the state’s four-tiered Covid reopening system, setting up the return of activities like indoor dining, gyms and amusement parks.
The state’ most populous county has been stuck in the purple tier since the system was implemented this past August, but officials now believe enough vaccine doses have been administered and new infections have dropped off enough to resume the long-banned activities. Along with LA, 12 other counties made the jump to red on Friday including neighboring Orange, Contra Costa, Sonoma and Placer.
Like the rest of the state, LA County continues to see a drop in new cases and hospitalizations. It has administered over 2.7 million vaccines as of Friday, according to health officials.
But the county's chief science officer Dr. Paul Simon said the LA will be greatly challenged by the expanding eligibility pool that now extends to 5 million workers, including janitors, public transit workers, probation camp workers and others in high-risk congregant settings.
“There is a tension and it’s been ongoing between wanting to try and come close to finishing a group that is eligible versus moving on to the next. We try to balance those two directions and that tension,” said Simon.
When asked if LA County is comfortable moving ahead with the state’s new recommendations, County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said there will likely be an increase in new cases with more businesses allowed to reopen.
“If this is the right decision, we’ll see. It really depends on each and every one of us. It depends on what each business does as well,” said Davis.
When asked if Sacramento was exerting pressure on the reopening timeline Davis said no.
"It’s not like someone is calling us and saying, ‘Do this and Do that.’ There is a balance in terms of trying to open things and at the same time we know people have been through a lot and sacrificed a lot," Davis said. "This is an opportunity to put things in place and let things to continue reopen.”
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly told reporters the decision to move LA and the other counties into the red tier was made based on progress administering doses to people from the state’s poorest and most vulnerable ZIP codes.
“California is making good strides on achieving the commitment to delivering doses to the hardest hit communities across the state,” Ghaly said. “We’re making sure our first line of protection is going to those places that have shouldered the greatest burden.”
Ghaly said the state has officially given over 2 million doses to low-income Californians, meeting a key benchmark set by Governor Gavin Newsom last week. As a result, it lowered the criteria for the red tier from 7 cases per 100,000 residents to 10, allowing LA and the others to advance.
With the criteria change, 21 of the state’s 58 counties remain in the lowest tier, headlined by San Diego, Riverside, Fresno and Sacramento. Ghaly predicted as many as 13 counties could advance out of purple during the next update planned for Tuesday, and that the criteria could be weakened again once the state hits the next goal of 4 million doses in underserved communities.
Newsom announced the distribution switch last week, but community groups and lawmakers from the San Francisco Bay Area are pushing back.
More than a dozen Bay Area lawmakers sent Ghaly a letter Friday, asking for the 40% vaccine commitment to low-income ZIP codes be switched instantly. They argue the switch wrongly diverts vaccines from Bay Area communities currently experiencing high infection rates, and note just 10 Bay Area ZIP codes are included compared to 79 in LA County.
“This is a matter of life and death for our community. This plan needs to be restructured and recalibrated immediately,” the letter states.
Asked about the blowback, Ghaly acknowledged meeting with Bay Area lawmakers twice this week but didn’t indicate any planned changes to the so-called equity metric.
In addition to business reopenings, Ghaly said he hopes more schools will be able to reopen following Friday’s announcement. He also said that while the majority of Californians will be able to eat or workout indoors, the activities remain precarious for some.
“We think a number of the indoor activities, especially where you can’t keep your mask on 100% of the time, still carry a risk. The good news is with more and more people vaccinated, especially those most vulnerable to the disease, we feel that is an important level of protection,” Ghaly added.
According to Johns Hopkins University, California has recorded more infections (3.6 million) and deaths (55,200) than any other state --- although at 40 million, the Golden State has more residents than 22 of the smallest states combined. However, after routinely reporting 50,000 new infections per day in January, counties recorded just 3,100 cases on Thursday.