Orange County shows progress in COVID-19 fight as businesses are allowed to reopen indoor operations

People eat out at The Longboard Restaurant and Pub in Huntington Beach on May 26.
People eat out at the Longboard Restaurant and Pub in Huntington Beach on May 26. Local restaurants, which have been limited to outdoor dining options, can begin indoor dining with modifications after Orange County moved from the purple COVID-19 tier to the red tier on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Orange County moved from the purple tier to the red tier in California’s coronavirus guidelines on Tuesday, meaning many businesses in the county can start to reopen indoor operations with modifications.

The county had been in the purple tier, for “widespread” risk, since the new color-coded guidelines were introduced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Aug. 28. The numbers of daily new COVID-19 cases and positive tests have been low enough in recent weeks for the county to move into the red tier, which indicates “substantial” risk.

In the red tier of the four-tiered system, restaurants, movie theaters and places of worship can resume indoor operations at either 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever number is fewer. Restaurants must close by 10 p.m.

Indoor shopping malls, swap meets and retail stores can be open at 50% capacity. Hair salons can reopen indoors with modifications, as can gyms, though gym capacity must be limited to 10%.

Bars, concert venues and amusement parks are among the businesses that must remain closed.

Newsom announced that COVID-19 conditions have improved enough in five counties to move them to the second tier of California’s four-tier reopening plan.

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley said she meets biweekly with the Restore Costa Mesa Recovery Team. At their meeting last Thursday, they discussed that the county would likely move to the red tier on Tuesday.

“So far, so good,” she said. “It’s great to see our restaurants being able to offer a little bit more capacity. Certainly, getting the health clubs back and adding more capacity at [South Coast Plaza] is a good thing. We just have to keep wearing our masks, social distancing and avoiding social gatherings and maybe we can get out of this thing.

“Our faith leaders on Thursday’s call were anxious. I think they’ve been doing a good job of trying to offer alternative service options, but I know they’re anxious to get everyone back together. We just want to make sure that we go through it cautiously, so we don’t backslide.”

Counties must stay in a tier at least 21 days. In the red tier, a county has from four to seven daily new cases per 100,000 people, as well as 5% to 8% positive testing. To move down to the orange tier, which indicates “moderate” risk, there would need to be one to 3.9 daily new cases and 2% to 4.9% positive testing, both over a seven-day average.

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported 1,056 new daily positive coronavirus tests on Tuesday, and three new deaths from COVID-19 to bring the death toll to 1,056 people. The county is closing in on 50,000 total positive tests; that number now sits at 49,996.

In terms of the state’s reopening metrics, the county has 5.2 daily positive cases per 100,000 people. The positive testing percentage is 4.2%. Both numbers are a seven-day average and include a seven-day lag period.

If the numbers don’t worsen in the next two weeks, Orange County schools also would be eligible to return to in-class learning on Sept. 22.

Orange County health officials say that county schools will have to wait until at least Sept. 22 to consider reopening after the state issued its latest guidelines regarding the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill said while he sees any reopening as a positive thing, he still doesn’t understand why the state moved away from the old model which would have had kids being able to return to class after Sept. 6.

“They changed away from using hospitalization data, and they’re now looking only at testing data,” O’Neill said. “The state is now prioritizing the number of tests the county does. A county like San Francisco was almost double Orange County’s case rate, but they found themselves in the red tier right away because they test way more than Orange County does … Fundamentally, I’d like to have more transparency and justification for going to this tiered system.

“Even if we were able to reach the fourth tier, which is an exceptionally low case rate and positivity rate that may not be able to be reached initially after a vaccine comes out, significant parts of our community including restaurants and houses of worship would still be capped at 50% of capacity.”

Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, West Coast regional medical director for One Medical, said that Tuesday’s move into the red tier was good news.

“What it tells us is that the steps that people are taking to minimize the spread of COVID are working,” Bhuyan said. “We know that people are wearing masks when they go out, they’re trying to stay at home when they can. People are practicing hand hygiene, people are physically distancing from others and they’re just using general caution. It shows that those simple steps can work to minimize the spread of COVID, without a vaccine even. I think that’s a really positive story.”

However, Bhuyan cautioned that Orange County residents still need to understand that they are in the middle of a pandemic.

“I would encourage people to keep taking the steps and using the same level of precaution,” she said. “We should be proud of ourselves for adhering to guidelines for COVID. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that our behaviors should change rapidly.”

Here are the latest cumulative coronavirus case counts and COVID-19 deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 9,597 cases; 252 deaths
  • Anaheim: 8,575 cases; 226 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,261 cases; 69 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,732 cases; 23 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,518 cases; 12 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,076 cases; 22 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 481 cases; 10 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 192 cases; less than five deaths

Updated figures are posted daily at For information on getting tested, visit

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