As COVID-19 risk dips, Orange County gets OK to reopen indoor restaurants, movie theaters

Pedestrians walk past a sign outside a business in Huntington Beach  urging customers to wear a mask on Aug. 12.
Pedestrians walk past a sign outside a business in Huntington Beach urging customers to wear a mask on Aug. 12.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County received some much-anticipated and welcome news in its battle against the coronavirus on Tuesday as it officially moved into the second stage of California’s four-tiered, color-coded reopening system.

The reclassification allows for more businesses — including movie theaters, restaurants and places of worship — to ease restrictions and open in limited capacity.

Four other counties also moved from Tier 1 (purple) to Tier 2 (red) on Tuesday: Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Amador and Placer.

Orange joins San Diego as the only counties in Southern California not classified as having “widespread risk” under the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system.

Seven other counties are being monitored for potential tier changes, but Gov. Gavin Newsom cautioned against complacency as well as the potential for spread due to the Labor Day weekend.


“Three-day holiday weekends have not been advantageous in terms of the mitigation of the spread of this virus,” Newsom said Tuesday, warning that counties can sometimes regress after moving forward.

It will take roughly two weeks to learn whether the combination of Labor Day weekend activity and the state’s new reopening guidelines leads to a new surge in COVID-19 cases.

Orange County’s new risk level — which is still considered “substantial” under the state’s monitoring system — allows for the reopening of indoor dining, places of worship, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums at 25% capacity; shopping centers and retail stores at 50% capacity; and gyms and fitness centers at 10% capacity.

The county surpassed 1,000 deaths last week and has recorded nearly 50,000 infections. It is currently reporting 5.2 cases per 100,000 residents and a 4.2% testing positivity rate over a seven-day period, according to the California Department of Public Health. Those two data points are key metrics for a county to move from one tier to another.

To move into a new tier, a county must meet targets for cases per capita and positive test results for three consecutive weeks. If the county doesn’t meet both standards, the rules for the stricter tier apply.

Top executives of nine drugmakers likely to produce the first coronavirus vaccines signed a pledge to boost public confidence in approved vaccines.

Los Angeles County, for example, straddles two tiers — Tier 1 for a higher case count per 100,000 residents and Tier 2 for a positivity rate of 4.3% — but remains in Tier 1 because that level is more stringent.

L.A. County has recorded 6,036 COVID-19 related deaths and more than 248,820 infections, including seven deaths and 439 new cases reported Tuesday. Those numbers have declined significantly in the weeks since a statewide surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths linked to Memorial Day weekend activity and the state’s first reopening strategy.

In Orange County, officials who had thought they were days away from moving off the original watch list have expressed frustration since the state updated its reopening guidelines last month and placed the county in the strictest tier. The change delayed the county’s timetable for reopening schools, which officials had expected to be eligible to do this week.

Labor Day is here, the unofficial end of summer and the time of year we start looking toward holiday festivities. But not this year: Coronavirus concerns are canceling popular Halloween and holiday light shows around Southern California.

On Thursday, County Supervisor Michelle Steel said that officials were told Orange County would be eligible to reopen schools on Sept. 22, assuming the county shifted into the red tier.

“I hope the state moves faster to accommodate schools, students and families and not change those dates again,” she said.

“Everyone wants our children back in school. Now that we have a date set, it’s imperative that we continue on our current course and do what we know must be done: social distancing, good hygiene and wearing masks.”

Following the county’s change in status, Steel reiterated her message on Tuesday that residents must remain vigilant in order to continue progressing through the state’s reopening system.

“With our continued hard work, I am confident that we will continue trending in the right direction and move into the orange tier in the not-too-distant future. The county of Orange can’t get there without everyone’s help and participation in observing health guidelines.”