Vaccinated and eager for normal life, Californians are venturing out. Is it too much too soon?
The gamblers, donning masks, couldn’t display their best poker faces on Monday at the Bicycle Hotel & Casino. But they were able to play indoors for the first time in more than one year.
“I feel safer now,” said Ming Huang, 70, a retired accountant who recently received a COVID-19 vaccine. “Cases are down. Time to come back. Nothing better to do.”
But Chris Lopez, 43, couldn’t stop looking behind his back, making sure people weren’t too close to him at the club in Bell Gardens, where partitions separate the players. After a few hands, he left in such a hurry that he didn’t even cash in his chips.
“I couldn’t focus,” said Lopez, a La Puente resident.
With the vaccine rollout expanding, COVID-19 cases flattening and stay-at-home restrictions lifted, Southern California is coming back to life.
Some merchants are reporting their best business since the pandemic began. Griffith Park saw such a crush of visitors during Easter Sunday that it had to temporarily turn people away.
In Pasadena, nearly 20,000 cars passed through city-owned structures last week. That’s more than double the number that passed through in the week that ended Jan. 24.
“It’s almost like pre-COVID, the way we’re seeing people out and about,” Pasadena spokesperson Lisa Derderian said Monday. “That’s a good thing, mentally. It’s good that people are trying to return to some type of normalcy. But we don’t want people to let their guard down.”
More people than ever are sensing it‘s becoming safer to venture out — and that it won’t lead to another surge. Many of those out and about have been vaccinated, and there were signs people were generally following various safety protocols.
But health officials and experts continue to urge residents to remain vigilant, especially as the state reopens and the number of coronavirus variants continues to grow in California, and other states report new surges.
County officials say moving to a less restrictive category in California’s reopening blueprint is a hard-fought gain in the battle against COVID-19.
“It just seems like generally people are less concerned, but, as a city, it’s still a concern for us,” said Joe DeVries, the director of interdepartmental operations in Oakland, where Lake Merritt saw thousands of visitors this weekend.
L.A. County officials continue taking a cautiously optimistic approach. While the coronavirus case rate has dropped to a level not seen since the early days of the pandemic, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that still “means that there are hundreds and hundreds of known cases that get diagnosed each day,” though the actual number of people being infected is likely higher.
Federal officials have been particularly alarmed as cases rise elsewhere in the country and on Monday said this is not the moment to return to normality.
“As community businesses begin to reopen, these findings underscore the vast impact of a single event affecting communities, schools, families, and fragile elderly,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in a briefing Monday. “And it emphasizes the impressive transmissibility of this virus and the continued need for … reducing the number of people indoors, improving building ventilation, and utilizing outdoor spaces as the weather allows.”
The next few weeks will be a major test of whether California can avoid more COVID-19 surges, with more reopenings expected and the potential fallout from the Easter holiday still unknown.
Businesses throughout Los Angeles County threw open their doors on Monday for the widest resumption of operations many had seen in months, if not longer. It came after the county’s move into the state-defined orange tier, a reflection of the region’s hard-won progress in the fight against COVID-19. Bowling alleys prepared to open their lanes and card clubs hosted poker players inside, while gyms and nail salons welcomed more people.
To ease people back indoors ahead of Monday’s widening of indoor activities, businesses have been taking major precautions.
At the Jewel City Bowl in Glendale and Matador Bowl in Northridge, bowling won’t look quite the same as it did before the pandemic, said owner Tony Sands. At 25% capacity, bowlers will be required to wear masks while hurling balls at pins. Plexiglass partitions have been installed between pairs of lanes. Food and drinks will be served, but the menu was pared down significantly. Reservations will be required.
The alleys were open for league bowling Monday evening, with tentative plans to open to the public the following week after about a yearlong closure.
Sands said most people “were dying to come back,” but he estimates that about 25% of his former customers will be too apprehensive to return immediately.
That hesitancy to resume some indoor activities has also affected nail salons, which were allowed to raise capacity from 50% to 75% under the new guidelines. Tracy Tran, 53, the owner of a salon in South Gate, said she could now host up to seven clients inside her salon at a busy shopping center. But she’s lucky if anyone actually shows up.
On Monday, she had only three clients. “It’s slow,” Tran said. “Customers, my regulars, are still afraid. They don’t come at all.”
Experts note that any resurgence in activity — especially indoors — can affect transmission. According to a study released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the reopening of a single indoor bar in a rural Illinois community in February has now been linked to the infections of at least 46 people. The reopening also led to infections among bar attendees that affected a long-term care facility, leaving one resident there hospitalized, and resulted in the closure of a school affecting 650 students.
While coronavirus transmission remains low in California, there’s no guarantee that the state won’t experience a new wave of infections. Recently, there have been some hints that the rate of the coronavirus’ retreat may be starting to slow in California.
Over the last week, the state has reported an average of 2,705 new COVID-19 cases per day — an ever-so-slight increase from the average of 2,702 daily cases recorded two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
It’s too soon to say whether that bump will prove to be a blip or the start of a trend. In L.A. County, for example, Ferrer on Monday said the county hasn’t seen its case counts climb in the aftermath of its last round of reopenings a few weeks ago.
Some point out that California’s reopening strategy is more conservative than those in other states, where mask rules have been thrown out and cases are going up.
“I am very cautiously optimistic that we are on the right course here in California, as compared to other states that may have dropped mask mandates,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a UCLA medical epidemiologist. “If Californians continue to look to community guidance as we open up the economy, we should be able to stay on this same downward trend and avoid some of the resurgence of disease that we are seeing in other parts of the country.”
Outside the Bicycle Hotel & Casino, guests waited in line on a red carpet-style entry where security personnel checked IDs and temperatures. Once cleared, they were welcomed to play.
It was Tommy Reeves’ first time returning to this card club since the pandemic started.
“Cases seem to be doing down and I’m getting the vaccine on Friday,” said Reeves, 55. “I wear masks all the time, so I feel OK-ish enough to try it out.”
After work dried up as a professional musician last year, Reeves decided to try a new career as a poker player.
On Monday, he finally got his chance to play.
Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.
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