California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday issued the broadest loosening of his stay-at-home order so far, allowing retailers and manufacturers to reopen with new safety measures and setting strict criteria counties must meet for offering restaurant dining and reopening malls and offices.
Only essential retailers, such as supermarkets and hardware stores, have been open since the order took effect March 19. But with improvements in California’s battle against the virus. Newsom said others can resume serving customers Friday with curbside pick-up only. The state also recommends they take precautions such as testing employees for virus symptoms when their shifts begin and providing them with face coverings. Customers also should wear masks.
All reopening businesses should create coronavirus prevention plans, and manufacturers should strive to keep workers at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart.
The rules were developed “with an eye on turning the page and moving into a new phase in terms of our economic recovery,” Newsom said.
The announcement moves California into the second phase of a methodical four-step process to full reopening. While retailers such as clothing and book stores and florists can reopen, higher-risk businesses like hair salons, gyms and shopping malls will come later provided the state continues its progress.
Eating at restaurants will come later too, though some counties could start as soon as next week if they meet stringent requirements. Among them: No virus deaths and only one case per every 10,000 residents over 14 days, a minimum of 1.5 tests administered per 1,000 residents and 15 contact tracers per 100,000 residents.
Tracers help stop the spread of infection by identifying who an infected person was in contact with so those people can self-quarantine.
Newsom said he expects some counties will meet that threshold quickly. Indeed, rural counties like Modoc, Yuba and Sutter that have already opened restaurants in defiance of the state order, have seen a low number of cases and deaths. Modoc is among about a dozen rural counties with no deaths.
In urbanized counties like Los Angeles, the state’s largest, it could be months or even years before no deaths are reported over two weeks, meaning they will have to wait until Newsom loosens the state guidelines to move ahead. San Francisco wants an even slower reopening than Newsom and don’t plan to allow retailers like book stores and flower shops to open until May 18.
There are large counties such as Fresno and Sacramento that have had relatively few cases but may not be able to meet the requirement for zero deaths over 14 days.
“We want to learn more about what they’re trying to accomplish with that,” said David Pomaville, Fresno County’s director of public health. A more logical data point might be deaths per capita, he said.
Only nine people have died from the coronavirus in Fresno County, which has nearly 1 million residents. with the most recent occurring this week.
“We understand the strategy, we understand the approach that’s being taken. But with anything the devil is in the details,” Pomaville said.
Sacramento County, with 1.5 million residents has a low overall care number but reported two deaths in recent days. County spokeswoman Brenda Bongiorno said Thursday the county meets all of the state’s criteria except for deaths and the number of contact tracers, which it expects to meet in the next two weeks.
Paula Cannon, a professor of immunology at the University of Southern California school of medicine, said Newsom’s plan recognizes concerns that smaller, more rural counties were being penalized for virus levels across the state as a whole. Cannon said the criteria to move beyond the current restrictions could be seen as a high bar to cross but allows a reopening in a way that will keep people safe.
“I’m pleased to see these criteria being so specific,” Cannon said. “It describes a path forward for reopening based on science and public health considerations, and moves it out of the realm of wishful thinking.”
On a day he announced a projected state budget deficit of $54.3 billion, Newsom repeated that he won’t bow to political or economic pressure to reopen the state and will instead rely on a four-step plan driven by science and data. The next phase, which could reopen salons, gyms, movie theaters and church services, could be months away. Phase four would end all restrictions and allow for large gatherings at concerts and sporting events, something Newsom said likely won’t be possible until a vaccine is available or most people are immune to the virus.
For retail stores that can reopen immediately, modifications could include contact-free transactions, supplying more hand sanitizer in stores, and having staff in gloves and masks deliver goods directly to consumers’ cars, said Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency. Manufacturing plants, meanwhile, could close traditional break rooms and spread workers farther apart, he said.
“It does not mean a return to normal,” Ghaly stressed.
The Newsom administration is tracking six indicators to determine when to ease restrictions. They include the state’s ability to test people for COVID-19 and trace who might have been exposed to it, and the capacity of hospitals to handle a potential surge of new cases. So far, Newsom has said the state is on track to meet its goals.
California has recorded more than 62,000 confirmed cases and 2,500 deaths, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. However, the true number of infections is likely far higher because many people don’t exhibit symptoms and haven’t been tested.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.