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California faces growing pressure to ease stay-at-home rules, at least in some regions

A skateboarder films protesters Sunday along Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach during a rally demanding the reopening of California.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other top state and local health officials have made it clear it’s still too early and risky to ease stay-at-home orders, which have been credited with slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Still, Newsom is expected to face more pressure this week to offer a clearer timeline, especially in parts of California where the virus appears to be a lessening threat.

There has been a growing movement from politicians in some rural or less urbanized parts of the state to request an easing of the rules, arguing that the situation there is not as severe as hot spots like Los Angeles County and Silicon Valley.

The latest request to Newsom comes from elected officials in Butte, Glenn, Tehama, Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties in Northern California. They say that cases and deaths in the region appear to have stabilized and that the stay-at-home order should be modified in those areas to help restart the economy. They said that as of Friday, there was only one coronavirus patient in the intensive care unit at local hospitals.

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“At this point, given the COVID-19 numbers locally — and our enhanced healthcare capacity — we ask you to allow our counties to exercise local authority to implement a careful and phased reopening of our local economies,” the letter said.

About 75 to 100 people gathered near a San Diego County beach to protest stay-at-home orders that also limit access to public parks and beaches.

Other areas, including regions of the Central Valley and Central Coast, have asked Newsom to partner on efforts to reopen the economy.

A group of cities in Stanislaus County last week sent Newsom a letter proposing 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.”

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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.

It’s clear that some areas have faced a much greater spread of the coronavirus than others. Los Angeles County has seen more than 900 deaths, while more than a dozen smaller counties have recorded no deaths.

Newsom has acknowledged these differences, saying “local conditions” will be taken into account when considering decisions to ease restrictions.

“We will consider those things not only from the perspective of the spread of the virus, not only from the perspective of the number of deaths and trend lines, but also in terms of our broader capacity,” he said.

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But there remains no timeline for reopening.

The governor has maintained that most of the six milestones he set to consider loosening the stay-at-home order he issued last month have not been met. The only change the governor has made is to allow some elective surgeries to again be scheduled in hospitals, citing sufficient capacity.

The six criteria are the ability to closely monitor and track potential cases; prevent infection of high-risk people; prepare hospitals to handle surges; develop therapies to meet demand; ensure schools, businesses and child-care facilities can support social distancing; and develop guidelines for when to ask Californians to stay home again if necessary.

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Many health experts agree with a cautious approach, saying reopening too early could cause new outbreaks and hurt the economy further.

There has been a series of protests around the state to reopen California. And this weekend, thousands flocked to Orange County beaches, which were open amid a heat wave.

Southern California had its first big heat wave over the weekend, but L.A. County beaches are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Beaches in nearby counties were open, however. Here are a few scenes from the weekend.

But there is also evidence many Californians support the rules.

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According to a California Health Care Foundation/Ipsos survey, 75% want the order to continue as long as it’s needed. Only 11% wanted to stop the stay-at-home order, while 13% had no opinion. Among low-income residents, support was even stronger: 78% support the stay-at-home order and only 3% oppose it.

Ninety-five percent of respondents said they supported L.A. elected officials’ decision to implement a stay-at-home order for all but essential personnel, according to a Loyola Marymount University poll of Los Angeles County residents.

Last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said it’s likely the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order will be extended beyond the current expiration date of May 3.

Breed has pointed to history as a reason to be cautious, citing the premature celebrations before the end of the 1918 flu contagion. She described how the illness “came back with a vengeance,” hitting San Francisco hard.

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“The fact is, it’s not over. … We will get through this. But it is going to require time, and it’s going to require patience like never before,” she said earlier this month.

Power abhors a vacuum. With the legislative and judicial branches basically shut down because of the coronavirus, the executive has seized almost complete control over state government.

Two northern Bay Area counties have already extended their stay-at-home orders. Solano County, which includes Vallejo and Fairfield, extended its order till May 17.

Napa County announced its stay-at-home order will be in effect indefinitely, but with changes that allow for more construction work, real estate showings and some gardening and landscaping, among other things.

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Newsom and others have said that stay-at-home orders must be maintained until it’s clear that easing restrictions won’t cause greater illness and economic disruption in the battle against the coronavirus.

“How we reopen is going to be important to ensuring that we do it responsibly so that we don’t go backward,” he said.

Los Angeles County’s Safer at Home order is in effect through at least May 15. Officials are developing a plan to slowly ease stay-at-home orders, but four key benchmarks must first be met.

“We don’t want to undo all the good we’ve done and accomplished so far,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said Friday. “We are not yet on the other side of this pandemic and we don’t want to prematurely ease restrictions.”

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She said the county will first need to make sure that its hospitals are adequately staffed, have enough resources to perform testing, and have a sufficient number of ventilators and other medical supplies to handle routine care as well as possible influxes of COVID-19 patients.

Second, the county must ensure that protections are in place for the most vulnerable, including older people, homeless people and those who live in institutional settings or don’t have access to services.

Third, the county must have the capacity to test, isolate and quarantine all those who are ill, as well as to conduct surveillance to prevent further spread.

And fourth, the county must maintain physical-distancing and infection control measures, including by providing businesses with educational materials and guidance to ensure that the rules can be followed when they reopen.

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With deaths in L.A. County doubling in the last week, officials said now is not the time to ease social-distancing rules.

“Because we are still seeing a significant increase in new cases and deaths, we ask that you continue to stay home as much as possible,” Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, said over the weekend.

Some communities are easing stay-at-home guidelines, which were stricter than the state’s order. For example, San Diego County officials on Friday announced that restrictions limiting ocean access will be lifted, paving the way for cities across the region to reopen beaches as soon as Monday.

San Diego has been the site of several demonstrations opposing the stay-at-home rules. Hundreds of people protested the orders on Sunday in San Diego’s Pacific Beach.


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