Until the novel coronavirus is no longer a public health threat, Californians should get used to wearing face masks in public and physical distancing, especially at stores and restaurants.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Marking a milestone in the pandemic fight, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday offered a ray of hope to 40 million residents confined at home by unveiling a strategy to open up the state.
“This can’t be a permanent state, and it will not be a permanent state,” Newsom said.
In a media briefing, Newsom unveiled a 6-point roadmap that he says will guide California’s transition from total lockdown to a functioning society and economy. The full reopening of the state’s $3 trillion economy will hinge on enhanced testing and a statewide reshaping of businesses, hospitals and schools to further implement physical distancing.
Newsom warned that until Covid-19 is no longer a threat, society and everyday life will be modified and Californians should become accustomed to things like smaller restaurants and wearing masks in public.
“You may be having dinner with a waiter wearing gloves, maybe a face mask,” said Newsom of changes coming to California’s renowned culinary sector. “Dinner where the menu is disposable; where half the tables in that restaurant no longer appear. Where your temperature is checked before you walk in.”
But before the loosening of shelter-in-place orders and the radical reopening of restaurants and schools, the state must continue stockpiling medical supplies as well as secure therapeutics and an early-warning system to shield future outbreaks.
The shift in focus comes as cases and hospitalizations have leveled in recent days, causing Newsom’s administration to readjust their predictions for when California’s peak will hit and how bad it will be.
Last week, California’s secretary for health and human services agency said the state was “holding on to the bottom” of its models and on Monday Newsom applauded residents for contributing to the state’s success in reducing infections and deaths.
The West Coast as a whole has mostly avoided the major outbreaks seen in places like New York or Italy. According to data compiled by The New York Times, while New York has recorded 51 deaths per 100,000 residents, Oregon has registered 1 per 100,000, California 2 and Washington state 7.
The glimpse into Newsom’s strategy doesn’t include a strict implementation timeline, but the Democratic governor told reporters he expects the state to make continued progress over the next two weeks in terms of accruing personal protective equipment and a decline in deaths and hospitalizations.
As for Newsom’s goal for more testing of people with symptoms and tracing their contacts, John Romley, who teaches health policy and economics at the University of Southern California, said in a phone interview it will be difficult. Widescale testing in a state of 40 million people and 58 counties amounts to a logistical nightmare, Romley said.
“California is way behind the rest of the country on this,” Romley said. “We’re doing well on the social distancing and thankfully our death rates are relatively low, but we really have lagged in terms of rolling out testing.”
Romley said it was important for Newsom to convey a sense of optimism, but added he was concerned about the continued strain on hospitals that have been forced to cancel surgeries and empty beds to prepare for Covid-19 patients.
“This is a big, big challenge. We’re expecting them to deal with a 100- or 200-year flood with a hand tied behind their back financially,” Romley said.
While he intended to inspire optimism on Tuesday, Newsom simultaneously dashed the hopes of Californians hoping for a return to normalcy by summer. He signaled large social events like holiday celebrations, summer camps and baseball games will almost certainly be banned.
“The prospect of mass gatherings is negligible at best until we get to herd immunity and we get to a vaccine,” Newsom said. “When you suggest June, July, August, it’s unlikely.”
On the economic side, Newsom said later this week he will be appointing a new taskforce to deal with “every economic sector.” The task force comes less than a week after Newsom’s chief business and financial advisor stepped down unceremoniously.
Newsom said the financial team will play a crucial role in the eventual decision to fully lift shelter-in-place orders that have been in place in some parts of the state for more than a month.
From downsized restaurants, smaller classrooms, banned gatherings and mass, constant sanitizing of public spaces, Newsom predicted major societal changes for the nation’s largest state. Nonetheless, Newsom encouraged residents to stay the course and trust his administration’s vision and timeline.
“Let’s not make the mistake of pulling the plug too early as much as we all want to. I don’t want to make a political decision that puts people’s lives at risk and puts the economy at even more risk by extending the period of time before we can ultimately transition and get people moving again,” Newsom said.
Per an agreement announced Monday, Newsom is coordinating California’s reopening with the governors of Oregon and Washington state. The Democratic governors have agreed to swap best practices in the coming weeks and implement policies based on “science, not politics.”
In a separate briefing Tuesday, Oregon Governor Kate Brown said the economy reopening will depend on whether cases continue to decrease and is contingent on the state accruing enough medical supplies to withstand a potential second wave of the virus. A full reopening will also require improved testing, tracing and quarantine guidelines, Brown said of Oregon’s roadmap.
“We have to be cautious or it will backfire,” Brown told reporters. “We know that a vaccine or an effective treatment may yet be months away, and if we move too quickly we will see a spike in cases that could lead to an overwhelmed hospital system and unnecessary deaths.”
Back in California, officials in Los Angeles County offered similar sentiments at their daily press briefing Tuesday afternoon.
“There’s a lot of messaging I know that’s happening on the national news channels about reopening the country,” said LA County Public Health director Barbara Ferrer. “But I do want to remind we’re not yet on the other side of this pandemic. We’re going to need to keep up our efforts to avoid a surge in cases that will overwhelm our hospitals. We don’t want to lose ground.”
While health officials in Los Angeles County reported last week that social distancing and stay-at-home orders were effective in slowing the spread of Covid-19, the county saw 40 new deaths between Monday and Tuesday.
The update marks the single highest daily death toll reported by LA County Public Health officials since the beginning of the pandemic.
The novel coronavirus has so far claimed 360 lives in the county, while the number of confirmed Covid-19 infections climbed to 10,047 Tuesday. County health officials reported 670 new cases — and over 900 cases confirmed in the last 48 hours — according Ferrer.
The brunt of the virus death toll has been borne by nursing homes, accounting for 31% of all deaths in LA County. In total, 109 residents of assisted living facilities and nursing homes have died from the virus, said Ferrer.
Nearly 200 investigations are ongoing at institutional settings like homeless shelters, jails, assisted living facilities and nursing homes where there have been at least one report of an infected resident or staff member. Nearly 900 residents at these settings are infected along with about 750 staff, said Ferrer.
About 63,000 LA County residents have been tested for the novel coronavirus. So far, 11% have tested positive.
Social distancing and stay-at-home orders from health officials will remain essential until there are therapeutic medicines and a vaccine, Ferrer said.
“When we relax our orders and people are out and about more, we know there will be more cases of Covid-19,” said Ferrer. “We need to avoid having that surge of cases and deaths that overwhelms the health care system, causes more tragedies and forces back to reinstating more of the restrictions.”
There is no firm date for reopening businesses and institutions in LA County, but health officials said it will be done in increments and with an eye to protecting vulnerable communities like those in nursing homes, houseless people and communities with little to no access to health care. There also needs to be widespread testing and increasing the number of places that can provide testing.
Over 1,400 people in LA County are currently hospitalized due to Covid-19, with 33% in intensive care units. Twenty percent of those in ICU require the help of a ventilator to breathe.