SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Business closures and three-week lockdowns are headed for California counties experiencing hospital surges under a new framework announced Thursday by Governor Gavin Newsom.
In the latest adjustment to his pandemic response, Newsom said the state’s focus in determining who can gather and what businesses can operate will switch from an infection-based method to one focused on ICU capacity. If ICU capacity drops below 15% in five new regions assembled under the modified order, travel restrictions, business closures and “100% masking and physical distancing” will be triggered.
Amid record-high hospitalizations and a statewide positivity rate over 7%, Newsom said the new regionalized approach is needed to keep the state’s network of over 400 hospitals from running out of beds in the coming weeks.
“We are at a tipping point in our fight against the virus and we need to take decisive action now,” Newsom said. “If we stay home as much as possible, and wear masks when we have to go to the doctor, shop for groceries or go for a hike, California can come out of this in a way that saves lives and puts us on a path toward economic recovery.”
In March, California became the first state to implement a statewide lockdown requiring residents to stay indoors except for exercise and essential employment.
The latest plan will assess combined hospital capacity within five new regions: Northern California — which includes mostly rural counties like Humboldt and Shasta — Bay Area, Greater Sacramento, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. If ICUs are more than 85% full, regions will remain under stay-at-home orders similar to the statewide version issued in March for a minimum of three weeks.
As of Thursday, Bay Area ICUs had the most beds available at just 25%. Greater Sacramento and Southern California had just 22% and 20.6% of their ICU beds available, respectively, while the largely rural San Joaquin Valley and Northern California regions appeared to be on the brink of the 15% trigger at 19.7% and 18.6% of ICU beds available, respectively.
Once hospital capacity improves, individual counties in the region will go back to the tiered-colored method based on infection rates that has been in place since August.
Closures will extend to hair salons, movie theatres, outdoor playgrounds as well as bars, wineries and breweries. Schools that have already resumed classes can stay open and retailers can continue operations at 20% capacity, while restaurants will only be open for takeout.
Pressure is already building as Newsom predicted each of the five regions will meet the ICU threshold in the coming days or weeks, meaning an effective statewide lockdown is looming for the holidays.
The move is precipitated by a statewide 86% increase in hospitalizations as well as a record-high average daily case rate of over 15,000. Deaths are also on the incline, as 970 Californians have perished during the last two weeks due to Covid-19. Over 2,000 Californians are in ICUs across the state — also a pandemic record.
Los Angeles County saw a new daily record Thursday with 7,854 cases reported in a single day. Forty percent of all cases statewide have occurred in LA County.
“The bottom line is if we don’t act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed. If we don’t act now, we’ll continue to see a death rate climb,” Newsom told reporters.
Under the new scheme, overnight camping will be prohibited, hotels can only accept essential employees as guests and places of worship must operate strictly outdoors. Non-urgent medical and dental providers can stay open, as can child care and pre-kindergarten facilities.
Along with 1.2 million confirmed cases — becoming the second state to cross the 1 million-case mark in November — California has now reported over 19,300 Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. According to a model by researchers at the University of Washington, California could see a wave of deaths this winter that could nearly double the death toll to 37,000 by March 1.
The undesirable honor spurred Newsom to request that residents cancel holiday travel plans. He demoted handfuls of counties to the most restrictive tier — which bars indoor dining and services — and instituted overnight curfews for businesses and gatherings the state deems nonessential.
Meanwhile, he said the state will offer $500 million in Covid-19 aid to small businesses in the form of new grants and tax relief.
Newsom has been widely criticized for attending a birthday party at a ritzy Napa restaurant last month and violating advice he’s been espousing for months. His critics, mainly state Republicans, blasted the latest top-down pandemic action.
“The governor’s lack of transparency and accountability, and his ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude has contributed to a complete lack of credibility with the public,” said California Republican Party chair Jessica Millan in a statement.
But others, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, applauded the announcement and said it will save lives.
“The toll of this pandemic on families has been devastating, and the mental, economic and social well-being of many Americans is suffering. But we must stay strong and do all we can to save lives. Together we will see it through,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Newsom, who is at home quarantining after his children were exposed to the virus, delivered the latest round of restrictions hours after one of his previously issued mandates against indoor church services crumbled before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though California is still in the early stages of a third wave, Newsom is confident residents will mind the pending lockdowns and ensure they will be the last of the pandemic. He expressed optimism over the 300,000 doses of vaccines headed to the state in the coming weeks and said the state is prepping for a distribution strategy.
The Democratic governor said the state will be laser-focused on making sure the early doses stay out of the hands of the state’s richest and most influential.
“Those that think they can get ahead of the line…we will be monitoring that very, very closely,” Newsom warned.
Asked about the prevalence of pandemic-fatigue and the possibility that counties won’t enforce the next round of lockdowns, Newsom said his administration is taking a carrot-and-stick approach and will be stingy with federal pandemic relief funds.
“If you’re unwilling to enforce the rules, if you’re unwilling to adopt the protocols to support the mitigation and reduction of the spread of this disease, we’re happy to redirect those dollars to counties that feel differently,” said the former San Francisco mayor.
Along with the vaccine developments, Newsom noted the state still has a healthy supply of over 20,000 available ventilators and 11 temporary hospitals ready to be activated. He urged the 40 million soon to be under strict regulations through the new year to stay vigilant.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Newsom concluded. “We don’t anticipate having to do this again.”