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A pivotal week for California reopening, as communities and businesses revolt against Newsom

After days of protest and a spat over the use of Orange County beaches, Gov. Gavin Newsom signaled the first concrete steps toward a return to a more normalized California on Monday when he described how some of the state’s stay-at-home rules could be eased.

Newsom’s announcement came as several communities and individual businesses began to reopen early in defiance of local and state orders.

Some businesses — including bookstores, florists and sporting goods retailers — could reopen as early as Friday, Newsom said.

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But as Newsom struck an optimistic tone in Sacramento, Los Angeles County officials confirmed an additional 568 cases and 28 new deaths linked to the virus, bringing the county’s total number of deaths to 1,256.

About 49% of those who died were residents of institutional settings. The majority of that group were living in nursing facilities.

The total number of individuals who have been infected by the virus in L.A. County is 26,217.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that officials will outline plans to modify restrictions in L.A. County later this week, but reminded the public that while social distancing practices have slowed the spread of the virus, it still remains easily transmissible.

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“The virus has not changed,” she said. “More people die in L.A. County every day from COVID-19 than any other disease.”

Roughly 5,019 people who tested positive for the virus have been hospitalized at some point, Ferrer said. There are currently 1,819 individuals who are hospitalized, including 30% who are in intensive care.

Newsom’s bid to keep Orange County beaches closed over the past weekend appears to have worked. Although the beaches drew some protesters and much media attention, they were not overrun by visitors, and officials said those who did venture out usually practiced social distancing.

State officials announced Monday that two beach cities have been granted permission to reopen their beaches.

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Laguna Beach and San Clemente submitted plans last week that would allow the public to immediately access the coastline for swimming, surfing and running on the sand, among other recreational activities. The plans include measures to avoid overcrowding.

“We appreciate the governor’s willingness to work with us to provide a responsible, gradual approach to reopening all beaches in Laguna Beach for active recreation,” Mayor Bob Whalen said in a prepared statement. “This will allow people the opportunity to walk, jog, swim and surf and get some fresh air and exercise on a limited basis, but not congregate or gather in large groups.”

In Orange County, anger over coronavirus beach closures comes amid growing unrest in a place known for years as a bastion of “cowboy capitalism.”

Under new guidelines, Newsom said that bookstores, music stores, toy stores, florists, sporting goods retailers and others can reopen for pickup as early as Friday. He said more detailed guidelines on the businesses that can reopen would be released later this week.

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“This is a very positive sign and it’s happened only for one reason: The data says it can happen,” the governor said.

The plan allows some communities to move further into the second phase of the order. Such counties would first be required to meet certain requirements for hospitals beds, testing kits and the ability to track infected individuals and trace their contacts, Newsom said.

Polls have shown support for the governor’s stay-at-home rules, even as they have devastated the economy.

The governor has previously urged Californians to stay the course, saying the state is moving in the right direction but needs more time in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

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“I just want folks to know we’re getting very close to making really meaningful augmentations to that stay-at-home order,” Newsom said Friday. “I want to say many days, not weeks, as long as we continue to be prudent and thoughtful.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the Trump administration’s corornavirus task force, also urged caution in reopening.

“Federal guidelines are a pretty firm policy of what we think is important from a public health standpoint,” Birx said Sunday on Fox News. “As states reopen, we really want them to follow the gating criteria.”

Birx said people still needed to practice social distancing.

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also said Monday that different cities will need to take different steps to emerge from the pandemic-induced shutdown.

“Our timing on opening may vary from other parts of the state,” he said. “I will reopen our city with careful consideration, guided by public health professionals.”

Garcetti said he did not expect city businesses to be able to offer curbside delivery on Friday in step with Newsom’s comments. The city’s “Safer At Home” order is in effect until May 15, and Garcetti said he hoped steps restricting commerce could begin to be rolled back by then.

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California has not yet seen a steady two-week decline in cases. The weekly number of new infections appeared to flatten for several weeks in early April, with about 8,000 to 8,500 cases every week. But from April 19 to April 25, the state recorded 11,777 new cases, and in the seven days ending Saturday, 11,041 new cases were recorded.

Statewide figures have begun to show a week-over-week decline in deaths. Whether that trend will continue, however, is uncertain. Between April 19 and April 25, 547 coronavirus deaths were reported in California, and last week, 497 fatalities were reported, a 9% decrease.

Yuba and Sutter counties in Northern California were set to allow many businesses to reopen Monday in defiance of Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order.

The two counties near the state’s capital join a sparsely populated county in California’s northeastern corner in reopening. Modoc County, with fewer than 9,000 residents, allowed all businesses, schools and churches to reopen Friday as long as people inside could stay six feet apart.

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The move by Yuba and Sutter counties — with a combined population of 171,000 people and just 50 coronavirus cases and three deaths — came as other California counties on the Central Coast and San Joaquin Valley were demanding to reopen more businesses.

In Victorville, 24-hour fitness studio the Gym reopened Friday with an 8-by-10-foot printout of the Constitution posted by the front door. Employees changed the colors of the studio’s sign to red, white and blue and hung banners that read #GymsAreEssential and #ReopenAmerica, according to owner Jacob D. Lewis.

Lewis said he chose to reopen after hearing from members who were struggling with issues ranging from flare-ups of chronic health conditions to declines in mental health since they had been unable to patronize his gym.

He also feels that some media outlets and government officials have exaggerated the scope of the COVID-19 outbreak to justify what he views as an overblown response that infringes on people’s personal freedom.

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Robert Kim-Farley, infectious disease expert, says Stage 4 of Gov. Newsom’s reopening plan for California may not be implemented until mid to late 2021.

San Clemente restaurant Nomads Canteen reopened for dine-in service at noon Friday. The owner, Jeff Gourley, could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The restaurant has been outspoken about the reopening on its Facebook account.

On Friday, it posted a meme of a flag recalling the “Don’t tread on me” logo, except the snake was wrapped around a bottle of tequila. “Take back your freedom, go for a surf, open your business, have a cold beer with your friends,” it read.

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In San Clemente, sheriff’s deputies on Friday visited Nomads Canteen with officials from the Orange County Health Care Agency, said Carrie Braun, spokeswoman for the county sheriff’s department.

“Our Environmental Health division was able to reach the owner, who understood that he is operating in violation of the governor’s order,” Jessica Good, public information manager for the Health Care Agency, wrote Sunday in an email. “A written warning will be issued, which could lead to permit suspension.”

Newsom’s stay-at-home order, issued March 19, was the first to be issued by any governor in the nation, and experts credit that with helping California see a fraction of the deaths of places like New York state, which has recorded more than 24,000 fatalities. That compares with over 2,100 deaths in the Golden State, with 55% of those occurring in Los Angeles County.

A poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies last week showed that California voters gave broad approval to Newsom amid the coronavirus crisis, despite widely felt economic pain.

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Voters want officials to take their time in ending restrictions on business and public gatherings. By 70% to 30%, the state’s voters say they’re more worried that shelter-in-place orders will end too soon, causing the illness to spread more, than they are that such orders will continue for too long and damage the economy.

Two weeks ago, 75% of people surveyed wanted the order to continue as long as it was needed, according to a California Health Care Foundation/Ipsos survey. Only 11% wanted to stop the stay-at-home order, while 13% had no opinion. Among low-income residents, support was even stronger: 78% supported the stay-at-home order, and only 3% opposed it.

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.


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