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More COVID-19 restrictions may be lifted in L.A., Orange counties: What to know

People walk along Hollywood Boulevard
L.A. County could soon move up to the orange tier, allowing more reopenings. Above, Hollywood on Saturday.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

With coronavirus cases continuing to dip and COVID-19 vaccine distribution steadily improving, more California counties are rapidly reaching a point where they can further untether themselves from the strictest rules imposed to combat the pandemic.

For Los Angeles and Orange counties, the next milestone could come as early as next week, when they are poised to potentially progress from the state-defined red tier of COVID-19 restrictions to the more lenient orange tier.

Neither county has ever made it that far through California’s reopening roadmap, a four-category, color-coded system that was unveiled in late August.

Such a move would position them to relax a host of restrictions — a likely welcome development for pandemic-weary Californians and financially battered businesses, but one that has sparked warnings and pleas for caution from health officials.

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“We are close to the finish line,” a city health official said. But some warn of a rebound of COVID-19 if residents relax their guard.

What does it mean to enter the orange tier?

Within California’s tier framework, counties are categorized based on three factors: coronavirus case rates, adjusted based on the number of tests performed; the rate of positive test results; and a health-equity metric intended to ensure that the positive test rate in poorer communities is not significantly higher than the county’s overall figure.

To enter the orange tier, for instance, a county must have an adjusted rate of 3.9 or fewer new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people each day, a test positivity rate of under 5% and a health-equity metric of less than 5.3%.

Those benchmarks remain out of reach for much of the state at the moment. As of this week, only 11 of California’s 58 counties had reached the orange tier or the final yellow tier.

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Getting that far, however, empowers counties to more broadly and significantly reopen their economies.

In the orange tier:

  • Counties can allow bars to reopen outdoors, with modifications, without needing to serve food.
  • Capacity restrictions are lifted in stores (although pandemic safety modifications still apply); houses of worship, museums, zoos and aquariums can raise their indoor capacity from 25% to 50%; restaurants and movie theaters can raise indoor capacity from 25% or 100 people (whichever is fewer) to 50% capacity or 200 people; and indoor gyms and yoga studios increase capacity from 10% to 25%. Bowling alleys can reopen with modifications at 25% capacity. Card rooms and satellite wagering sites can also reopen indoors at 25% capacity.
  • Offices in nonessential industries can reopen, but workers should be encouraged to work remotely.
  • Amusement parks — which can open starting April 1 in red-tier counties — would be allowed to expand their attendance to 25% capacity.
  • The capacity limit for outdoor sports and live performances, also effective April 1, rises to 33% for counties in the orange tier.

The state’s framework sets the floor in terms of restrictions. Local-level health departments have the power to keep stricter rules in place, if they so choose.

A growing number of California’s health departments have broken with state guidelines and made COVID-19 vaccines available to more people, sparking joy from some and envy among others.

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Where do L.A. and Orange counties stand?

L.A. and Orange counties have met all the requisite orange tier thresholds, according to the latest state data released Tuesday. Their most recently calculated adjusted case rates were 3.7 and 3.5, respectively.

However, counties must log two straight weeks of qualifying data to advance to a less restrictive tier and have to stay in a tier at least three weeks before moving again.

What’s the timing?

When exactly that three-week clock started, however, has been somewhat opaque because of recent state changes to the reopening blueprint.

Earlier this month, officials set an initial goal of administering 2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in targeted disadvantaged communities — those within the lowest quartile of a socioeconomic measurement tool called the California Healthy Places Index.

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Previously, counties needed to have an adjusted coronavirus case rate at or below 7.0 new cases per day per 100,000 people to move from the purple to red tier. Upon meeting its self-imposed vaccine target on March 12, however, the state began allowing counties with an adjusted case rate of up to 10 new cases per day per 100,000 people to exit the purple tier.

A number of qualifying counties were reassigned to the red tier effective that following weekend.

If the state uses that as its starting point, than the counties in question — including L.A. and Orange County — would not be able to move into the orange tier until early next month.

“We can’t move any earlier, from my calculations, to the orange tier than April 5, and it may even be April 7, depending on what dates the state uses,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday.

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However, state officials said that “a county that moved during the reassignment is considered to have moved into their current tier” on March 8 — a date that’s also reflected in the spreadsheet compiled as part of the weekly tier assignment update.

“When the state met the vaccine equity goal of 2 million doses administered in the least advantaged quartile, a reassignment of tier status was done for each county based on data from the previous two blueprint runs,” the California Department of Public Health wrote Wednesday in response to an emailed inquiry from The Times. “For example, the reassigned data that was posted on 3/12 [March 12] was based on the 3/1 and 3/8 blueprint data runs.”

In other words, because L.A. County met the relaxed red tier threshold as of March 8, it’s considered to have entered the tier at that time — even though the criteria wasn’t changed and the official move didn’t happen until later.

The state’s March 8 date would seemingly allow both L.A. and Orange County to advance to the orange tier next week, provided their metrics hold steady.

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Curative’s mouth swabs should be administered only under strict protocols, federal regulators caution. Fred Turner, Curative’s 25-year-old founder, thinks otherwise.

If and when L.A. moves to orange, “we’re obviously going to work both with our board [of supervisors] and with our sector partners to assess what makes sense for L.A. County,” Ferrer said.

“We’ve done this all along,” she said during a briefing. “We, in general, try to follow the state’s blueprint and the state’s suggestions for what may be safe in any given tier, but we also know we have unique circumstances here in L.A. County. And when we need to, we’ve made modifications to the reopening guidelines to reflect concerns we have, or the need for us to either move more slowly or with more modifications.”

Who else already moved to orange?

Six counties moved into the orange tier this week: San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, Trinity, Lassen and Yolo. Already in that tier are Mariposa, Plumas and San Mateo counties. Just two counties, Alpine and Sierra, have made it to yellow.

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San Francisco Mayor London Breed said that moving into the orange tier means “downtown is going to start to come alive again,” and “many of the restaurants and the coffee shops in the places that you’ve seen that have been struggling will hopefully be able to open again.”

Even San Francisco Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax, known for giving gloomy assessments during the pandemic, was upbeat.

“We are close to the finish line,” he said.

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So it’s all good news?

Not exactly. While the additional reopenings are testament to the progress California has made in the aftermath of its horrific fall-and-winter coronavirus wave, officials continue to stress that the state isn’t out of the woods yet.

Such worries have taken on new urgency as of late, as parts of Europe and the United States have seen troubling upticks in coronavirus case numbers.

Breed said staying on the path forward means “we all still have a role to play — in getting the vaccine when we qualify and making sure that we’re continuing to wear our mask and socially distance and do all of those things.”

“We don’t want to get too comfortable,” she said. “We know that there is still work to do. We don’t want to see another surge. We don’t want to go backward. That’s why we are proceeding with caution in how we open.”

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Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s health officer and public health director, shared the sentiment.

“To continue to prevent cases and resultant hospitalizations and deaths, we must continue to wear masks, social distance, stay outdoors as much as possible and get vaccinated when it’s our turn,” she said in a statement. “We are close to a significant increase in vaccine supplies, but until those doses are in arms, we must protect each other against another surge.”

More reopenings, Ferrer said, carry “additional risk, as more people are mingling with others. We mitigate the risk as much as possible by asking businesses to adhere to safety protocols that reduce possible exposures among workers and customers.”

“While conditions have definitely changed, particularly as we’ve vaccinated millions of individuals over the past three months, we do not yet have enough vaccine protection across the county to prevent more transmission if we’re not extraordinarily careful in these next few weeks,” she told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

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Are vaccines safe? How do I get my second dose? Do I have to wear a mask? We’ve answered hundreds of newsletter readers’ questions. Here’s an archive.

Ferrer said, “we are committed, along with everyone, to move forward, and we are excited about this opportunity to stay on a recovery journey.”

“We know this means a lot to everyone, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize safety,” she said. “We have to do it in a way that pays attention to what our numbers are doing, and what we’re seeing around the other states and other countries. Again, I think it’s, ‘Be sensible as you move forward.’”

Times staff writer Maura Dolan contributed to this report.


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