More California Counties Get Green Light to Reopen — But Not LA

Diners have lunch on the street in Old Pasadena, a pleasant perk from the novel coronavirus as cities block off lanes of traffic to accommodate restaurants and state-mandated outdoor dining. (Courthouse News photo / Bill Girdner)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Further delaying the reopening of California’s most populous county, state officials said Tuesday that Los Angeles will remain stuck in the most severe coronavirus tier for at least two more weeks.

Business owners and residents had hoped the ban on indoor dining and other activities would be lifted after new cases in the county dropped earlier this month. But according to the state, the number of infections per 100,000 residents increased in recent days — a spike that bars the county from advancing into a stage that allows restaurants, places of worship, movie theaters, gyms and schools to open indoors with reduced capacity.

Though other major counties like San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Clara and even neighboring Orange have progressed in the state’s four-tiered reopening framework, Los Angeles and its 10 million residents are stuck in neutral. Under the rules, counties must show two successive weeks of improvement before jumping tiers, meaning the indoor dining ban will remain until at least mid-October.

Los Angeles and a total of 18 counties remain in the purple tier, compared to 30 two weeks ago. Other major counties in the lowest tier include Ventura, San Bernardino, Kern and Stanislaus.

Tuesday’s coronavirus update did feature good news for some major counties, as Sacramento, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Fresno and Santa Barbara have advanced to the second or “substantial” tier. Along with LA, the counties were mired in the “widespread” category since Governor Gavin Newsom introduced the new policy on Aug. 28.

Under Newsom’s plan, counties are placed in four color-coded tiers based on two factors: the number of cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests.

Meanwhile, three counties including San Francisco advanced to the third or “moderate” tier, giving county officials more wiggle room in determining which industries and activities should be allowed to resume.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said the announcement will lead to the reopening of indoor dining and religious ceremonies at 25% capacity beginning Wednesday. In addition, movie theatres and playgrounds will also be allowed to reopen on Oct. 7.

“Reopening indoor restaurants and houses of worship with limited capacity, and creating opportunities for families to safely enjoy outdoor entertainment are a good step on our road to recovery,” Breed said in a statement.

As a whole, California leads the nation in confirmed cases with over 814,000, according to Johns Hopkins University, ahead of Texas (761,000) and Florida (701,000). In terms of cases and deaths per 100,000 residents, the Golden State ranks 26th.

Due largely to hotspots in Los Angeles and the Central Valley, the severity of California’s pandemic peaked during July where testing positivity rates drifted around the 8% mark and at one point nearly 7,000 people were hospitalized.

But despite recent improvements in both trends — statewide hospitalizations are down 20% over two weeks and the positivity rate is at 2.8% — state officials are worried about the potential for a gloomy October.

Citing an increase in the state’s “R-effective” number, which measures how fast a virus is spreading, California Health and Human Services chief Mark Ghaly is predicting hospitalizations to spike 89% by the end of October. 

Asked why the state is allowing counties to reopen in the first place considering the dire prediction, Ghaly said the potential scenario is exactly what the blueprint was designed for.

“We believe the slow, stringent plan allows us to take into account some of those trends and shifts, and when a county isn’t able to move forward through the blueprint, they won’t,” Ghaly said. “They will have actually a pause.”

Ghaly used LA as an example, noting that it met the criteria to advance for one week, but not the second and thus must start the process all over. The county’s positivity rate (2.9%) is well below the 8.0% marker, but its new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents is just above the required 7.0.

Despite Tuesday’s setback, Ghaly said it’s far from impossible for LA to finally advance if residents continue to practice social distancing and wear masks. 

“As a Los Angeles resident, I’m hopeful we’ll continue to do what we can to reduce transmission and believe there is a path forward,” Ghaly said.

But LA County schools could inch open sooner rather than later, after the county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to allow some public school districts and private schools apply for a waiver to reopen transitional kindergarten through second-grade classrooms with a focus on institutions serving large numbers of low-income families. 

Most of the state’s more than 6 million students have been learning from home since March, when schools and large sectors of the economy closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

But under more recent state guidelines, schools were allowed to apply with local health officials for a waiver to reopen classrooms, though county leaders have the final say on any plans.

After pressure to revisit its anti-waiver stance, LA County supervisors said Tuesday offering limited in-person instruction will help students who are performing poorly in the current distance learning setup or those who have special needs. 

“All students are entitled to a free and appropriate education,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the board chair. “For many of our students who are most at risk, distance learning is neither free nor appropriate.”

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who co-wrote the motion with Barger, said in a statement schools must show their parents, teachers and staff support reopening plans and understand how to implement them.

“Our residents have made sacrifices to slow the spread of this virus and were even able to avoid a spike in cases after Labor Day,” said Hahn. “With the support of our public health experts, these waivers are a way to start bringing more students back to school safely.” 

At least 500 schools in the county are already operating at limited capacity in order to serve high-need students, according to LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

Ferrer said that while the county still has too many Covid-19 cases to move into a less-restrictive phase of operating, her department will review waiver applications that present compelling and safe reopening plans.

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