Los Angeles County health officials on Thursday announced 51 news coronavirus-linked fatalities, pushing California’s death toll past 2,500.
The majority of those — 1,418 — have been in L.A. County, California’s largest and the hotbed of COVID-19 infections in the state.
These numbers “represent people who live in our community, and they have families and friends who are suffering as they mourn their loved ones,” the director of the county Department of Public Health, Barbara Ferrer, said. “I ask you to join with us and keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
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Ferrer also announced 815 new coronavirus cases since Wednesday, boosting the county’s total to 29,427.
Even as the case count and death toll continued to climb, some businesses in L.A. County and elsewhere around the state were readying to reopen Friday.
The dichotomy is at the heart of the delicate balancing act that Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials must perform as they seek to restart certain sectors of the state’s battered economy while avoiding a potential second wave of coronavirus infections.
“There is a lot at stake as we relax Safer-at-Home. Reopening our county — even slowly — only works if we’re all really committed to being careful,” Ferrer said, adding that residents still need to observe basic safety measures such as physical distancing, washing hands frequently and wearing face coverings.
In Los Angeles County, car dealers and other types of brick-and-mortar stores — including florists and those that sell toys, music, books, clothing and sporting goods — will be allowed to open for curbside pickup only starting Friday. In-store shopping will not be permitted.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, but we can’t move too quickly,” county Supervisor Hilda Solis said Thursday. “Simply put, the virus does not get any less dangerous during this time we’re staying at home, so we need to be careful and we need to be deliberate.”
Given L.A. County’s size, even relaxing a few provisions of the local health order could significantly increase how many people are coming into contact with one another, Ferrer said.
That, she added, is why “we’re going to go extraordinarily slow, and the reason why is we don’t want to be doing this at the expense of people’s lives.”
“We reserve the right to be mindful that, if the data looks like we’re moving in the wrong direction, we’ll need to take a different set of actions,” she said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti urged residents to shop locally at reopened stores. But he cautioned people against assuming that the measures signal a return to the past.
“We’re not stepping into a brand new place,” he said Thursday. “This isn’t the flipping on of a switch where everything goes back to normal. We’re not going to go back to normal for a long time.”
Newsom announced earlier this week that the state will ease some of its strict stay-at-home rules, allowing bookstores, music stores, toy stores, florists, sporting goods stores, clothing stores and others to reopen for curbside pickup Friday.
Factories that supply those businesses would also be allowed to resume operating.
It will be far from business as usual, though. Offices, shopping malls and dine-in restaurants are still ordered closed, and the second phase of Newsom’s reopening plan also excludes personal grooming businesses, entertainment venues, live concerts and sports.
Newsom said Thursday that the first person in California to contract coronavirus through community spread caught it in a nail salon. He cited the case when asked why personal services like nail salons have to stay closed as the state reopens other businesses.
Garcetti said the detail reinforced to him that personal services are “tougher spaces” to reopen.
“Same thing with religious institutions. I’d love to get back to services,” he said. “But we know how many stories started in a church gathering or a funeral.”
Following the state’s lead, some municipalities announced plans to reopen certain businesses in the coming days.
In Ventura County, curbside pickup will soon also be available at bookstores, clothing stores, florists and sporting goods stores, officials there said.
Meanwhile, San Francisco is taking a more moderate approach, with officials there delaying similar moves until May 18.
Riverside County, on the other hand, is considering whether to rescind its health orders — which are among the strictest in the state. That county’s Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to delay a decision until Friday, pending further guidance from Newsom.
With California entering its eighth week under Newsom’s stay-at-home order, calls to relax those restrictions and allow some businesses to reopen have grown increasingly loud.
Hundreds of California Highway Patrol officers surrounded the State Capitol on Thursday, blocking out a few hundred protesters — mostly from Southern California — who returned to Sacramento after staging a rally last week where about 30 people were arrested.
Those arrests sparked anger among the protesters, many of whom said they consider themselves strong supporters of law enforcement. On Thursday, they came bearing a small olive tree they described as a token of their forgiveness that the officers did not stand with them.
Some carried signs reading, ”God forgives you. Join we the people,” while others in the crowd yelled at officers to disobey their orders.
Speakers said they understood that the officers were not the enemy, but rather directed their anger at what they called Newsom’s “overreach.”
“I want everyone here to know that our fight is not with the California Highway Patrol,” said Pastor Tim Thompson of Riverside as he stood at the barricade, begging for one of the officers to break ranks and come forward to accept the tree.
“It’s pretty disappointing that they wouldn’t accept,” said Stefanie Fetzer, a protester from Orange County. “It’s pretty shocking. ... Gavin Newsom has met some new milestones with overreach and tyranny.”
Its shuttered economy has plunged California’s finances into dire straits. Because of a crash in anticipated revenues and an explosion of unanticipated spending, the state now projects a record $54.3-billion budget deficit through next summer.
“We are certainly dealing with a crisis that is global in its scope and impact and, clearly, California is not immune from those impacts,” Newsom said Thursday.
And it’s not just California that’s suffering. Nearly 3.2 million laid-off U.S. workers applied for unemployment benefits last week, meaning roughly 33.5 million people have lost their jobs in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces.
Despite the magnitude of the expected budget crunch, Newsom expressed optimism that the state would rise to the challenge — so long as the federal government provides desperately needed support.
“We punch above our weight in this state,” he said. “And we’ll come back stronger, more resilient and more vibrant than ever.”
The state hasn’t taken the counties’ rebellion lying down. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control visited multiple locations in Yuba and Sutter counties this week and warned restaurants that had opened their dining rooms that they could lose their state alcohol licenses if they didn’t close them.
Defiance of the statewide order, the agency said, “endangers public health and safety.”
The state’s stance could shift soon, however, after Newsom announced that California was working to implement guidelines that would allow counties to further relax restrictions after they meet criteria related to disease activity, worker safety, testing, contact tracing, hospital capacity and identifying metrics that would trigger either a slowdown or a rollback.
“We are very, very cognizant of the fact that when we modify, we anticipate more engagement and, obviously, more engagement [means] more mixing of individuals, puts people potentially at risk of contracting this disease,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important that all the monitoring and all the guidelines under the new playbook that was put out today are enacted and enforced.”
Times staff writers Hannah Fry, Marisa Gerber, Maura Dolan, Rong-Gong Lin II, Priscella Vega, Kailyn Brown, Phil Willon, John Myers, Taryn Luna, Emily Alpert Reyes and the Associated Press contributed to this report.