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California

Some cities want to reopen restaurants, churches as first step in easing stay-at-home orders

A group of protesters, including Alma Villanueva, left, and Gigi Wilcox, right, stage a vehicle caravan protest April 22 in downtown Los Angeles calling on state and local officials to reopen the economy.
A group of protesters, including Alma Villanueva, left, and Gigi Wilcox, right, stage a vehicle caravan protest April 22 in downtown Los Angeles calling on state and local officials to reopen the economy.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

More California communities are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to ease stay-at-home restrictions even as state officials say there still is no firm timetable to safely do so.

A group of cities in Stanislaus County sent Newsom a letter proposing some steps to loosen restrictions, saying “a reopening process that may fit, and make sense, for Los Angeles and our neighboring Bay Area regions does not work for our county. Stanislaus County is nothing like the regions of San Francisco or Los Angeles.”

The cities suggested a first phase of reopening parks, churches and other houses of worship, restaurants, car washes and some other businesses, all following strict social distancing rules.

Restaurants would have seating limitations and operate on a reservation only basis; and automatic car washers would be reopened with similar precautions currently in place for drive through restaurant service and drive through COVID19 testing facilities,” they said in the letter.

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As for houses of worship, the cities said they would require “social distancing, prohibition of Communion, passing the collection plate, hand shaking including the peace greeting, and any hugging or contact between congregates and the worship leader.”

Newsom and other health officials have resisted the calls to reopen, saying the decision needs to be guided by science.

“I wish I could prescribe a specific date to say, well, we can turn up the light switch and go back to normalcy,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. “We have tried to make it crystal clear that there is no light switch. And there is no date in terms of our capacity to provide the kind of clarity that I know so many of you demand and deserve.”

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California was the first state to issue stay-at-home orders, and experts have said it has helped the state bend the coronavirus curve. California has seen far fewer coronavirus deaths than hot spots like New York and New Jersey, and hospitals have not been overwhelmed by patients. Experts have said reopening too soon could cause more illnesses and ultimately hurt the economy more in the long run.

Newsom on Wednesday announced an expansion of coronavirus testing capability throughout California, saying the findings will be critical to deciding when to ease the state’s strict stay-at-home order and allow people to return to work.

But, he said, the prospect of lifting the restrictions becomes more feasible with widespread testing. The data will increase the ability of public health officials to closely track potential cases, an essential requirement for California to ease into the next phase of the pandemic while still stemming the spread of the virus.

The Newsom administration last week highlighted six key indicators for altering the governor’s stay-at-home order. In addition to increased testing, they include acquiring the ability to prevent infection of high-risk people; preparing hospitals to handle surges; developing therapies to meet demand; ensuring schools, businesses and child-care facilities can support social distancing; and developing guidelines for when to ask Californians to stay home again if necessary.

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“I deeply recognize, deeply understand the desire for people to hear directly from the administration, from the state and its leadership, about the answer to when, when can we go back to some semblance of normalcy,” Newsom said Wednesday.

Earlier this week, officials in San Luis Obispo County asked Newsom to begin a slow and gradual reopening process, one they say is guided by science but also recognition that the region might be in better shape to ease stay-at-home rules faster than more populous hot spots like Los Angeles County and Silicon Valley.

Sutter County officials sent a similar request to the governor.

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Some top local officials, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have urged patience, expressing concern that lifting the order too soon could cause more outbreaks and hurt the economy more in the long run.

“I know many of you are feeling frustrated or wondering when we’ll be able to lift the safer at home order. But lifting the restrictions too soon could risk lives,” Garcetti said Monday.

Some experts have said allowing parts of California to reopen before others raises challenges.

“The problem with counties coming up piecemeal is about whether they create magnets,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a UC San Francisco epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert.

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There are situations in which a tailored, nuanced approach may be appropriate by region, said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, medical epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

First, counties would need to show there’s adequate testing available, and there’s plenty of hospital capacity. And cases, hospitalizations and deaths would need to be declining consistently before loosening the rules can begin.

“So if they start to take away some of these physical distancing measures, they have some room, if you will, to start a little bit of [coronavirus] growth upwards without overloading their system,” Kim-Farley said.

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Kim-Farley said he could envision ways of keeping physical distancing in place while allowing more businesses to open, like requiring sporting goods stores to follow the same rules essential businesses now follow in some counties — require people to wear face coverings and limit the number of people inside.

The same concept might apply to beaches and parks — allowing people to go for a walk or a swim, but barring gatherings of large groups, Kim-Farley said.

The city of Ventura eased a hard closure on parks and beaches this week in an effort to help residents stay mentally and physically healthy amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the city has not asked Newsom to lift any of the more stringent statewide stay-at-home orders, which remain in effect across Ventura County.

Under an amended ordinance, residents can now access the city’s beaches, pier, promenade and parks as long as they keep their distance from one another and remain active. People can walk back and forth on the pier or the sand but are not allowed to sit down, or stand against the railing to fish, for example.

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The city’s two golf courses also are slated to open by Friday, with changes that promote physical distancing and limited contact with employees with personal protective equipment, according to city spokeswoman Heather Sumagaysay.

Playgrounds, picnic areas, parking lots, pools and recreational courts and fields will remain closed.

Orange and Riverside counties also reopened golf courses, but with restrictions.


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