Acknowledging that more California communities are in a position to slowly reopen businesses, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday loosened rules linking coronavirus infection rates to allowed activities — a change that could release most parts of the state from the tightest restrictions of his stay-at-home order.
“We recognize the conditions across the state are unique and distinctive depending where you are,” Newsom said. “The bottom line is people can go at their own pace and we are empowering our local health directors and county officials that understand their local communities and conditions better than any of us.”
The decision by Newsom comes less than two weeks after his administration first began transferring more decision-making power to local public health officials and was prompted, he said, by additional data suggesting steady rates of hospitalizations and COVID-19 patients treated in intensive care units as well as increased testing and more protective gear for healthcare workers.
“Remember, the whole purpose of the stay-at-home order was to prepare and to respond in the worst-case scenario,” Newsom said. “Our capacity to meet surge has been, I think, advanced.”
The rules will allow restaurant dining rooms and shopping malls to open again in counties that meet the new criteria. The governor also hinted that even bigger changes envisioned in later stages of reopening are just around the corner, such as the opening of hair salons and even spectator-free sporting events as soon as the first week in June.
The changes, announced during a visit by Newsom to a restaurant in Napa, mean that 53 of California’s 58 counties can now move further into the second of four stages toward reopening if they so choose, he said. The governor didn’t name the five counties that wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the flexibility, though he cited concerns with skilled nursing facilities in Tulare County and a meatpacking facility in Kings County.
Nor is the announcement expected to bring immediate changes in Los Angeles County, which continues to outpace other parts of the state in confirmed cases and deaths. Local officials say the infection rate in the county is falling, but that they remain concerned about the potential spread of the disease.
Other counties, though, did report improvements. Officials in Santa Clara County said Monday they would take the first steps into the state’s second stage of loosened restrictions, while San Francisco’s director of public health, Dr. Grant Colfax, said Monday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the city will be able to reopen more in the next two to four weeks.
San Francisco barber shops, hair salons and nail parlors, though, will not be reopened for at least another month, he said.
“So far the game is going relatively well,” Colfax said, “but we are only in the second inning of a long game.”
Most notable in Monday’s announcement by Newsom is that counties will no longer be kept from loosening the shutdown rules if there have been COVID-19 deaths in the previous two weeks. The original standard was criticized by many of California’s urban counties, whose leaders argued that even a single fatal case would block them from moving deeper into the second stage of reopening rules crafted by the Newsom administration.
The new standard removes the death rate requirement and replaces it with a more generous threshold based on rates of newly confirmed cases. Counties will be able to move toward a more expansive reopening if they can show fewer than 25 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents in the last 14 days — a standard that was originally 1 new case per 10,000 residents.
Counties could, instead, show that fewer than 8% of residents tested for the virus over a seven-day period were positive.
Counties also must show that the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients have stabilized, meaning they can’t increase by more than 5% over a seven-day period or that a county can’t have more than 20 hospitalizations on any single day over a 14-day period.
The announcement could help ease the tensions that have arisen over Newsom’s stay-at-home order, now in its ninth week, after several defiant counties reopened this month without prior approval. Modoc County allowed all businesses to reopen May 1, while Yuba and Sutter counties cleared gyms, nail and hair salons, shopping malls and other retailers to resume operations days later.
The Newsom administration sent warning letters to the three counties on May 7, stating that the local governments could become ineligible for disaster funding if they continued to defy the governor’s order and urging them to instead work with the state.
While Newsom promised Monday that changes are coming soon for those hoping to visit businesses like hair salons or see some return of sporting events, it was unclear whether he was hinting that much of California could be nearing the third stage in his reopening rules — as those activities have previously been described as being only after the second stage loosenings have all taken place.
Amid the pushback from counties, Newsom also adopted a framework to allow some areas to move ahead of his administration’s pace. If local governments want to open more businesses, the plan allows counties to submit an application declaring that the presence of the virus is limited or nonexistent in their jurisdictions and they’ve met certain requirements to prepare for a future surge in infections.
Giving credence to the arguments that the requirements were unrealistic, a Times analysis at the time found that the vast majority of counties in California failed to meet the first two criteria — no deaths and no more than 1 case per 10,000 residents in the prior two weeks. As of Monday, Newsom said 24 counties have declared that they met the state’s criteria to move further ahead in Stage 2.
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who is president of state’s association of counties, said Newsom’s decision affirms the work of local officials in being “swift to act, flatten the curve and protect the public’s health.”
Times staff writers Maura Dolan and Ron-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.