Some Businesses in California Cleared to Reopen Friday

Tacos remain essential business in San Diego, California. Inside Ortiz’s, a masked customer is seen waiting for his takeout. (Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After seven weeks of closures, a variety of businesses and retail establishments across California could spring to life in limited fashion as soon as Friday under the first modification to the statewide lockdown order.

Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday the continued stabilization of hospitalization rates and testing improvements has allowed the nation’s most populous state to push forward with the gradual reopening of its economy. The announcement means brick-and-mortar clothing stores, sporting good chains and even florists could potentially be open for curbside pick-up in time for Mother’s Day.

“We are entering into the next phase this week,” Newsom said during a press briefing. “This is a very positive sign that’s happened only for one reason: the data says it can happen.”

Before opening, businesses will need to meet conditions and guidelines set by local public health officials while rural counties that have seen a lack of coronavirus cases will be allowed to go further than urban areas. For the time being, shopping malls, bars and offices will remain closed, Newsom said. 

While far from the full reopening many counties and cities have been pushing for, the announcement represents the first step toward normalcy for California, the first state to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19. As it has worldwide, the pandemic has shattered California’s finances and sent over 4 million residents to the unemployment lines in less than two months.

Newsom cast the pending modifications as a sort of tryout for business owners willing to open “thoughtfully and judiciously,” but reiterated the lockdown will be quickly reinstated if the state experiences a surge in new cases or deaths. He added that individual counties will have the ability to enact stricter guidelines if necessary.

In-store shopping and seated dining remain barred but businesses will be allowed to offer curbside pickup and takeout orders. The second phase of Newsom’s “recovery roadmap” will also allow the retail manufacturers and related supply chains to reopen.

“This is an optimistic day as we see a little ray of sunshine on the horizon,” Newsom said.

Over the last week, a variety of small businesses have ignored the statewide order and resumed on their own. Barbershops, tattoo parlors and retailers have already reopened in counties like Modoc, Sutter and Yuba counties.

When asked about the rebellions, Newsom hinted there could be consequences and that the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control has already investigated 81 establishments for potentially violating the lockdown order.

With more than 10,000 ventilators available and 14 emergency hospitals sitting empty, the former San Francisco mayor has decided to give back local officials some control. Newsom said he expects local officials to embrace the modification and implement individual public safety plans by the end of the work week.

“Many of these counties, many of these regions have done already a ton of work in this space and they’re ready to go,” Newsom said. “I have great expectation that you’re going to see a lot of these communities with local certification in place.”

Improvements in the state’s testing and contact tracing capabilities drove Monday’s announcement, as the state is now testing over 30,000 people per day and teaming with two major universities on an online program to train tracers or so-called “disease detectives.”

Both county and state employees will go through a 20-hour training course provided by the University of California, San Francisco and UCLA and be re-deployed to help trace the spread of the virus. The state hopes to train up to 20,000 tracers and make them available to the state’s 61 local public health agencies.

Individual cities continue to expand testing programs beyond people with symptoms, as on Monday San Francisco announced all essential workers can be tested for free. Mayor London Breed said the announcement is a key step toward reaching universal testing for all San Francisco residents.

“San Francisco’s essential workers have kept our city going for months now during the pandemic response,” Breed said in a statement. “Now that we have our testing program established and are certain that we can test everyone with symptoms, we want to extend to them the opportunity to get tested more easily—for peace of mind and to take action if needed to protect themselves and their families.”

Last week Los Angeles became the first major U.S. city to implement free coronavirus testing for all of its residents.

Later this week, Los Angeles County will detail efforts to reopen its economy. But health officials reminded the public Monday the virus remains the leading cause of death in the county.

“Recovery is a journey and one that will take many months,” said LA County Public Health director Barbara Ferrer. “I want us all to do this journey together and be prepared that there will be new normals during this period.”

Social distancing will be one of those new norms, Ferrer said during her daily coronavirus briefing during which she announced that 26,217 LA County residents have tested positive for Covid-19.

Ferrer did not commit to any one route to reopening LA’s economy, but said public health officials will need to have several prerequisites in place to safely allow businesses to reopen.

In previous daily Covid-19 updates, public health officials said regular testing, isolation and quarantine would need to become routine.

The death toll in LA County stands at 1,256, a figure that includes 15 health care workers. Most worked at skilled nursing homes that have seen an explosion in infections and deaths across the country.

The number of infections among health care workers continues to climb, jumping over 1,000 in less than a week to 2,978 by Monday. County public health officials have begun to regularly test residents and staff at skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Overall, 616 residents of congregate settlings like skilled nursing homes have died, accounting for 49% of all deaths in LA County.

An outbreak in a homeless shelter in downtown LA has resulted in 196 infections, and officials have lagged in finding housing for homeless people under the statewide Project Roomkey initiative. Roughly 60,000 people are homeless in LA County, but LA County officials have only secured 2,200 hotel and motel rooms of their projected goal of 15,000 rooms.

California has now confirmed nearly 55,000 Covid-19 cases and 2,254 deaths, while over 3,300 are currently hospitalized. Los Angeles remains California’s hotspot and according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University it has seen the 10th most deaths of any county nationwide.

After causing a stir last week by ordering a hard closure of Orange County beaches, Newsom is allowing two county beaches to reopen in limited capacity.

Officials from the California Natural Resources Agency said the cities of Laguna Beach and San Clemente have submitted plans for a limited reopening of their beaches that include adequate “measures to protect public health” and promote physical distancing. The agency said the cities’ plans have been approved and the beaches can reopen Monday, and that it will “expeditiously” review plans from other Orange County cities.

Newsom complimented the cities for “enthusiastically embracing” the closure and quickly submitting reopening plans that will prevent overcrowding. He said he expects other Orange County cities to follow suit and get their beaches opened by the weekend.

The reopening announcement provided a sliver of relief for downtrodden small businesses, but the pandemic has just begun taking its toll on all sectors of the Golden State’s economy.

During a legislative committee hearing in Sacramento on Monday, the California Hospital Association said hospitals took a collective $14 billion hit by catering solely to Covid-19 patients. The association acknowledged delaying elective surgeries and clearing hospital beds was prudent but asked the lawmakers to consider a $1 billion aid package for the state’s over 400 cash-strapped hospitals.  

Along with devastating hits to the health care industry, Newsom said the state is quickly burning through its unemployment insurance fund. With over 4 million unemployment claims, the state is seriously considering borrowing from the federal government as it did during the Great Recession.

With a spending bill due by June 15, Newsom said California will have to lean on Congress and the Trump administration to help balance its budget.

“This pandemic is bigger than even the state of California; the economic consequences of this pandemic are such that we can’t balance our budgets without substantial cuts, unless we get additional federal support,” Newsom said.

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