Coronavirus Today: Pico Boulevard during the pandemic

Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Wednesday, March 17. After my colleague Deborah Netburn held down the fort, I’m happy to be back keeping you updated on what you need to know about the pandemic. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Through more than a year of quarantine, I’ve often wondered what the world will look like when we emerge. Not just the masks that we’ll use or the non-elastic waistband pants we’ll start wearing again, but which of our old favorites will still be there when we leave our bunkers for good.

On Pico Boulevard, businesses are fighting to meet us on the other side of the pandemic. My colleagues take us on a drive down it from Santa Monica to downtown, checking in with nearly two dozen businesses along the way. They pass luxury hotels, family-owned restaurants, preschools and empty concert halls, showing the entire spectrum of the pandemic’s economic impact and the resilience of the people behind the businesses that mark one of the area’s main arteries.

Some places, like Jay Handal’s Erba Markets, proved pandemic-proof. Delivery orders for the cannabis dispensary boomed and then remained elevated even as in-person sales recovered. The staff has grown from 64 to 89 people.


But his success feels like “the anomaly on the boulevard,” Handal said. He didn’t apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan because he didn’t want to take opportunities away from struggling bars and restaurants. More than 1,300 businesses with Pico Boulevard addresses have been approved for PPP loans.

One of them was San Francisco Saloon. It’s been more than a year since the sports bar served a drink. With no patio for outdoor dining, there was nowhere for owner Bruce Beach to turn when the pandemic shut off indoor operations. The business qualified for a $125,000 PPP loan, but couldn’t reopen amid restrictions and must return the money it wasn’t able to use. The current opportunity to reopen at 25% indoor capacity won’t be enough for the saloon to be profitable.

It’s been a nightmare for this type of operation,” Beach said.

Some businesses survived by quickly modifying their plans. Glenn Friedman’s Reclaimed Frame shifted from providing frames for gallery shows to retail, serving work-from-home DIYers who finally noticed how boring their walls were.

Maria Elena Cerrón closed her shop where customers browsed for hard-to-find spiritual products, but Botanica Luz del Día now has a thriving online presence thanks to Cerrón’s grandson Anthony Ponce and daughter Dora Cardona. They set up an online shop where customers can find ritual candles, incense and powders, and Ponce posted a video of his 89-year-old grandmother on TikTok. Viral fame ensued.

When Cerrón, who offers tarot card readings and cleansing services, opened her shop in 1984, the mysticism of her business seemed startling for some. Now that a younger generation is embracing it, she’s sharing her gift for spiritual guidance during an era that tested us all.

“God willing, I continue to fight,” Cerrón said in Spanish, “and I will continue.”

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 5:32 p.m. Wednesday:

3,606,911 confirmed cases, up 1,181 today; 56,278 deaths, up 181 today; 13,037,557 vaccines administered, up 400,360 today

Track California’s coronavirus spread and vaccination efforts — including the latest numbers and how they break down — with our graphics.

In California, 8,847,129 people have received at least one dose, or 22.4%, and 4,223,542, or 10.7%, are fully vaccinated.

Across California

I didn’t get to celebrate this milestone earlier in the week with you, dear readers, so let me belatedly share my excitement that Los Angeles and other Southern California counties have graduated to the red tier. Just days after making the long-awaited jump, officials are already eyeing the next move — and it could come relatively quickly, my colleague Luke Money reports.

“Should our case numbers continue to decline, our recovery journey could land us in the less restrictive orange tier in April,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “This is only possible if we all do our part to keep each other safe.”

To move from the red to orange tier, a county must have an adjusted coronavirus case rate of fewer than four new cases per 100,000 people each day; a test positivity rate of under 5%; and a health equity metric of less than 5.3. A county has to meet those requirements for two straight weeks. L.A. County checks the boxes for health equity and positivity rate, but its adjusted case rate — 4.1 — is just out of range. The county is two weeks, at best, from advancing.

The red wave of reopening that swept through the state over the weekend occurred because California administered 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to its most vulnerable people and relaxed its standards for moving from the purple to the red tier. A similar situation could occur when the state reaches 4 million doses administered in areas that are in the lowest of the California Healthy Places Index.

Once that goal has been met, the requirement for moving to the orange tier will drop from fewer than four new cases per day per 100,000 residents to fewer than six. Getting to the yellow tier would require an adjusted daily new case rate of fewer than two per 100,000 people, compared with the current standard of fewer than one. (Use this tool from my colleagues on the Data Desk to see where your county stands.)

But the goal of 4 million vaccine doses is still a ways away. As of Wednesday, about 2.4 million doses had been administered in the target communities.

Any move toward reopening should come with caution as coronavirus variants threaten our recent progress. California, already home to the worrisome B.1.427/B.1.429 strain (more on that later), has documented its first infection caused by the P.1 variant from Brazil, my colleague Lila Seidman reports.

The strain, which is believed to be more contagious than its predecessors, was found in a San Bernardino County resident who was tested on March 2. State public health officials notified the county about the case last week.

P.1 is one of two variants originating from Brazil. The other, known as P.2, had already shown up in several cases in California. Both Brazilian variants share a mutation that appears to help the virus evade antibodies generated by either a previous infection or a vaccine, according to Dr. Benjamin Pinsky, medical director for Stanford’s Clinical Virology Laboratory.

San Bernardino County officials said it’s unclear whether the P.1 variant is more resistant to COVID-19 vaccines. In clinical trials, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe disease in Brazil and other Latin American countries, though it was 72% effective in the United States.

The J&J shot was expected to expedite vaccination efforts, but supply has remained limited, even as eligibility in California expands. The state is wrestling with how to proceed now that so many more people are eligible for the shots, my colleagues report.

Phase 1C included disabled Californians and those with certain underlying medical conditions, people who live or work in high-risk congregate residential settings, and public transit and airport employees. An age-based system is expected next, but “it’s too soon to tell” when that will start, said Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health.

We’re going to look at supply,” he said. “We have analysts who are projecting all of this out, and we’re going to be seeing how many people are getting vaccinated. That really helps determine when we’ll make the next announcement.”

For a rough estimate, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he expects the state to be “in a completely different place in six or so weeks.”

A map of California showing many counties in the purple tier, 20 in the red tier, three in orange and one in yellow.
A map showing most counties in the red tier (including all southern ones) and 11, mostly in Central California, in the purple tier.
A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

See the latest on California’s coronavirus closures and reopenings, and the metrics that inform them, with our tracker.

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Around the nation and the world

We use Facebook for a lot of things these days, including stalking — I mean, checking up on — old crushes and keeping up with relatives. Now the social media giant wants to help us find COVID-19 vaccines.

The company aims to show people when and where they can get vaccinated and provide links to make appointments. The tool, launched in partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital, will live in a “COVID Information Center” in the news feed on Facebook and will be featured prominently on Instagram. But users are not flocking to the change, my colleague Hayley Smith reports.

When Mark Zuckerberg announced the idea Monday — in a Facebook post, of course — the comments quickly filled with messages that called vaccines “poison” and described Zuckerberg’s post as “propaganda.” One user touted the use of hydroxychloroquine, which has been discredited as a COVID-19 treatment.

Only a minority of commenters appeared to be actually in favor of the COVID-19 vaccine. A Facebook spokeswoman said the company will work to expand its efforts to address COVID-19 vaccine misinformation by adding labels to Facebook and Instagram posts that discuss the vaccines.

Former President Trump is also encouraging people to get vaccinated. In a Fox News interview on Tuesday night, Trump said he would recommend COVID-19 shots to “a lot of people that don’t want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me.”

He’s right about that. In a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 42% of Republicans said they probably or definitely will not get vaccinated, compared with 17% of Democrats. Both White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Dr. Anthony Fauci have said they’d welcome Trump’s endorsement. “I think it would make all the difference in the world,” Fauci said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He is a very widely popular person among Republicans.”

Trump told Fox News that people were free to make up their own minds about COVID-19 vaccines. “We have our freedoms and we have to live by that, and I agree with that also,” he said. “But it is a great vaccine. It is a safe vaccine, and it is something that works.”

Many people are hoping to use vaccines as a passport to safer travels this summer. In Europe, where many countries depend on tourism, officials are trying to devise a standardized system that would allow European Union residents to move freely across the 27-nation bloc by the summer if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19, tested negative for the coronavirus or recovered from a previous infection.

The EU’s executive body proposed issuing such certifications Wednesday, but the topic remains divisive. Some countries like Greece and Spain have been pushing for the measure to help avoid quarantines and testing requirements that hinder tourism. Other nations like France argue that quickly implementing the system would be discriminatory because many EU citizens haven’t had access to vaccines yet.

Fewer than 5% of European citizens have been fully vaccinated amid delays in deliveries and production of vaccines, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

Other countries are looking at implementing so-called vaccine passports, but doing so has come with challenges as officials try to digitize records and ensure easy access. For now, those traveling from the United States may not be able to enter a foreign country, even with proof of vaccination. For example, no foreign nationals are allowed to travel to Australia without a government waiver.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How are gyms making it safe to work out indoors?

This question is now relevant throughout Southern California, since being in the red tier means gyms can resume using their indoor spaces. But they’ll need to proceed with caution, my colleague David Wharton reports.

Gyms are allowed to operate indoors only at 10% capacity, so some are keeping a select amount of equipment outside, as space allows. Inside, weight benches are spaced at least six feet apart and every other cardio machine may be taped off to ensure safe distancing. Doors may be kept open to promote ventilation. The amount of disinfectant, paper towels and hand sanitizer in sight may rival the number of dumbbells on the racks.

Indoor pools, saunas, hot tubs and steam rooms are still off-limits. Locker rooms and showers are also closed, so if you’re ready to ditch your home exercise regimen for the gym, come dressed to work out.

The top thing you should remember? A mask. People are still required to wear face coverings while working out in a gym, and studies of outbreaks in Hawaii and Chicago have shown that exercising without a mask is a great way to spread the coronavirus.

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Need more vaccine help? Talk to your healthcare provider. Call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at (833) 422-4255. And consult our county-by-county guides to getting vaccinated.

Practice social distancing using these tips, and wear a mask or two.

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