Orange County cleared to reopen more businesses amid coronavirus restrictions

Police and protesters find a shady spot along Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County has been approved by the state to mount a more aggressive reopening of local businesses, officials announced Saturday. The county joins 45 others that have been cleared to resume in-restaurant dining and in-store shopping.

“With this attestation, it is our goal to ensure all Orange County businesses have the confidence to open as safely and as soon as possible without concerns about the state order,” said county Supervisor Michelle Steel in a statement.

Orange County leaders were hopeful early in the week that more retailers would be able to reopen before the Memorial Day holiday, but businesses first had to put certain plans and precautions in place.

Before reopening, businesses must review state guidance relevant to their industry, prepare and implement a safety plan and post an industry-specific checklist in their workplaces, county officials said Saturday in a news release.


The posting must include an attestation by the business owner that they’ve performed a risk assessment, put in place a protection plan, trained employees on how to limit the virus’s spread, and implemented screenings, disinfecting protocols and physical-distancing guidelines, according to a new order issued by the county health officer Friday.

“We understand that many businesses are hurting at this time and greatly want to reopen with as little issues as possible,” county Supervisor Don Wagner said in a statement.

“However, the state is requiring training and assessments to be done prior to opening. We ask that businesses work as best as they can to meet these guidelines.”

Newport Beach’s City Council planned to meet Tuesday to consider an emergency ordinance to expand outdoor dining and streamline the processes for improvements that would help businesses to reopen, the city said in a news release. The proposal was developed to help businesses quickly obtain temporary-use permits for things like takeout windows, curbside pickup zones and expanded outdoor operations, the city said.

The health order issued Friday also requires Orange County residents to wear cloth face coverings when they’re in a public place, at work or visiting a place of business and they’re unable to stay at least six feet apart from others who are not in their household.

In addition, it mandates that those who have or are likely to have the coronavirus self-isolate until at least three days after they recover and 10 days after their symptoms first appeared or they submitted a specimen for a test that returned a positive result. Those who have been in close contact with a person who has or is likely to have the coronavirus must quarantine themselves until 14 days from the last date they were in contact.


“The order includes necessary preventative measures to control and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community and help preserve the capacity in our local healthcare system, which was one of the metrics the California Department of Public Health took into account before approving our plan to move deeper into Stage 2 of reopening Orange County,” said Dr. Nichole Quick, the county health officer, in a statement.

Orange County submitted its final documentation Thursday night outlining hospitalization rates, testing capacity and other benchmarks that state officials say need to be met in order to move into an accelerated Phase 2 of relaxing stay-at-home orders.

The state’s approval was made possible after Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday adjusted the requirements counties must meet to accelerate their reopening schedules. Most notably, Newsom announced that counties would no longer be kept from loosening stay-at-home rules if they have recorded COVID-19 deaths in the previous two weeks.

Local leaders can now move toward a more expansive reopening if they can show fewer than 25 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents in the last 14 days, or show that fewer than 8% of residents tested for the virus over a seven-day period were positive.

Data submitted by Orange County this week show that 7.95% of residents tested for the virus between May 13 and Tuesday were positive, coming in just under the state’s maximum.

Hospitalizations are another factor the state considers. Counties have to show either that the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals hasn’t increased by more than 5% over a seven-day period or that they haven’t had more than 20 hospitalizations on any single day over a 14-day period.

Based on Orange County’s calculation, hospitalizations increased by 0.91% on average over the seven-day stretch that ended Tuesday.

Under the prior state restrictions, Orange County — and several other counties statewide — would not have been eligible for faster reopening since people are still dying from the virus in many communities.

The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in California.

Orange County public health officials Saturday reported 12 new coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the county’s overall death toll to 130. Nearly a third of the fatalities were recorded in the past four days, with 10 deaths recorded Wednesday, 14 Thursday and six Friday. Before Wednesday, the county hadn’t reported more than five deaths in a single day.

Officials said that many of the new deaths are due to outbreaks in skilled nursing facilities. In total, 52 residents of skilled nursing facilities had died as of Saturday.

The county also reported an additional 216 cases of the virus Saturday, bringing the total number of infections countywide to 5,157.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange announced plans for public Masses to resume in phases in Orange County starting June 14.

The first phase includes allowing smaller groups of healthy people to gather for limited Mass with social distancing rules, church officials said Friday in a news release. The second phase will allow for larger groups and the third will permit choirs and social gatherings. All of the phases will require participants to follow strict guidelines for social distancing and disinfection, officials said.

“The pandemic is far from over, so we will begin with small steps,” said Diocese of Orange Bishop Kevin Vann in a statement. “Realizing that reinfection is a concern, as we saw occurred in Texas and elsewhere, I am asking our pastors to prepare their churches to ensure that these guidelines are followed without exception.”

Last week, a Catholic church in Houston had to cancel Masses indefinitely after five of its leaders tested positive for the coronavirus and a priest died. The church had resumed services on May 2 under the state’s reopening plan.

In Orange County, the bishop’s advisors have been working on reopening guidelines for weeks, in consultation with county officials and medical experts, the release said.

Those over 65 or who have an underlying health condition will be encouraged not to return when churches initially reopen, as will anyone who is sick or lives with someone who is sick.

Holy water fonts will remain empty, hymnals will be removed and people will be instructed not to touch one another, including during greetings. Church rituals that require touching, like the sign of peace, will be suspended.

In most cases, churches will be required to limit their capacity to one-third of normal attendance, officials said. More Masses will be offered than usual, and people will be encouraged to come during the week to avoid crowding on Sundays. Vann extended a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday to permit the shift.

The bishop also granted a temporary dispensation allowing priests to celebrate Mass outside church buildings, including in gyms, parish halls and outdoor spaces.

Officials said that Catholics should check their parish’s website for specific instructions on how Masses will be held and attendance will be allowed.

Other Southern California counties that have been cleared to move into an accelerated Phase 2 of reopening include Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Diego and Ventura counties.

Officials have said that Los Angeles County, which is home to nearly half the state’s coronavirus cases and about 56% of its deaths, is unlikely to accelerate its reopening any time soon.

County public health officials Saturday announced 1,032 new cases of the coronavirus and 41 related deaths. Long Beach, which has its own public health department, reported an additional 40 cases and one death, bringing the county’s total to 44,095 cases and 2,091 deaths.

Still, even in the nation’s most populous county, there were encouraging signs of progress in slowing the virus’ spread.

“Thanks to everyone’s efforts, our data points to steady declines in hospitalizations, deaths, and the percent of people testing positive,” Barbara Ferrer, the county health director, said Saturday in a statement.

The county has seen a 13% decrease in its latest seven-day average of deaths per day and a 16% decrease in its most recent three-day average of hospitalizations per day, according to a Department of Health dashboard that tracks metrics related to recovery.

In addition, the percentage of people who have tested positive in L.A. County has reached an all-time low of 8.5%, compared with 28% in New York City, Ferrer said.

Her comments came the day after the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, singled out Los Angeles as one of three metropolitan areas that has seen a persistently high number of new daily cases, which she said was a cause for concern.

On Saturday, Ferrer attributed the high case counts to ramped up testing.

“The increase we see in our number of cases is because we have increased the number of people we are testing, and this is a good thing,” she said.

The county was meeting its goal of testing 15,000 residents each day, with a seven-day average of 17,901 daily tests performed, the dashboard states. As of Saturday, more than 436,000 people had been tested and received their results.

“We are testing more people per capita in L.A. County than the state of California, the state of Washington, the state of Georgia, the United States, and Seattle King-County,” Ferrer said.

That comes as a number of new testing sites have been established by both L.A. city and county authorities.

The latest is scheduled to open Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Friday.

“This site isn’t special just because of where it is and all those amazing memories we have of going to Chavez Ravine to see the boys in blue play,” Garcetti said. “It’s remarkable because we’ll be able to test up to 6,000 people a day.”

Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.