Authorities cited improving conditions in hospitals but noted that counties remain subject to the restrictive “purple tier” of guidelines for economic reopening. Individual counties, however, still are able to impose stricter restrictions than the state. It was unclear whether Los Angeles County — considered a national epicenter of the current surge in the virus — would be easing any of its restrictions.
The state’s move today may lead to a resumption of outdoor dining and some services at gyms, barber shops and nail salons, among other businesses.
“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California Health and Human Services. “Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front-line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared.”
The regional stay-at-home order was imposed in Southern California early last month when intensive-care unit capacity dropped below 15%. The regional capacity subsequently dropped to an adjusted 0%, and the order was extended on December 29. But state officials said Monday that with hospitalization numbers trending downward, four-week projections now indicate ICU capacity will rise above the 15% threshold.
Governor Gavin Newsom, who once gave daily updates on the state of the state’s Covid fight, has not spoken on the topic in 10 days. He has not given an official press conference on the pandemic in even longer. While case and hospitalization numbers are falling, the number of daily deaths attributed to the virus has remained stubbornly high, setting a new record of 761 on Thursday. The percentage of those dying in overcrowded ICUs has doubled since October.
The state’s vaccination efforts have been lackluster by most measures. As of last week, California had administered just 891,000 of its first 3.4 million doses of both vaccines. That’s barely 26%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Only Alabama, Georgia and Virginia have lower percentages than California at administering their allotments.
State officials disputed the Bloomberg data on Monday, pointing instead to a CA dashboard that indicated 2.4 million doses administered. A report from the New York Times on Monday, which credited California with about 2.3 million administered indicated that the state was about 42nd in the nation in doses administered per capita.
Local health officials have plead with state and federal officials for more vaccine — or even just to fulfill the allotments promised but not delivered.
On Thursday, L.A. County’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Paul Simon said that if the region’s weekly allotment doesn’t dramatically improve beyond the current average of about 150,000, “the vaccination effort will likely extend well into 2022.”
Then there are the new variants of the virus, some of which are thought to be more infectious, others of which may be vaccine resistant. It is unknown how those will impact numbers going forward.
Then on Friday came the bombshell report from the Associated Press alleging that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has been keeping secret the data calculations by which it has justified one of the country’s longest and most stringent lockdowns. Those are the numbers on which today’s decision are predicated, and they remain confusing to say the least.
As of Friday, the state dashboard had Southern California had 0% ICU capacity and listed the Sacramento region at just 9% ICU capacity but, somehow prohibitions in Sacramento were lifted.
At the start of last week, no regions appeared unlikely to have the stay-at-home order lifted soon because their capacity was well below 15%. But within a day, the state announced it was lifting the order for the 13-county Greater Sacramento area.
Suddenly, outdoor dining and worship services were OK again, hair and nail salons and other businesses could reopen, and retailers could have more shoppers inside.
Local officials and businesses were caught off guard. State officials did not describe their reasoning other than to say it was based on a projection for ICU capacity.
That’s confounding, since Newsom has said throughout the pandemic that he was committed to transparency and making decisions based on data.
Even more confounding was the response reportedly given to AP by Department of Public Health spokeswoman Ali Bay. “At the moment the projections are not being shared publicly,” she said in an email.
Asked by Deadline on Thursday if he was clear how the regional ICU percentages were determined, LA County Chief Science Officer Dr. Paul Simon said, “I can’t really comment. I haven’t seen the news. I’m not really sure what considerations were made in that threshold.”
Given that, the sudden decision to lift the order seems, at the very least, opaque. Why not explain the numbers? Why base such an important decision on four-week projections, rather than actual current numbers?
Newsom was due to appear Monday at a noon news conference at which, presumably, those questions would be asked if not answered. In the meantime, it was left to the state’s public health officer, who actually issues heath orders at the behest of the governor, to try and explain the turnaround.
“Californians heard the urgent message to stay home as much as possible and accepted that challenge to slow the surge and save lives,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, CDPH director and state public health officer. “Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains.”
Because case rates remain high across most of California, the state’s Hospital Surge Order remains in place to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. The stay-at-home order, which limits non-essential activities from 10 p.m.-5 a.m., also is over.
“Covid-19 is still here and still deadly, so our work is not over,” Aragón said, “but it’s important to recognize our collective actions saved lives and we are turning a critical corner.”
Health officials reminded that it remains critical that Californians continue to wear masks when they leave home, stick to six-foot social distancing, avoid gatherings and mixing with other households and maintain good hand-washing habits.
They also urged residents to get the Covid-19 vaccines when their turn comes up.
In Los Angeles County, health officials said appointments are available this week at its five large coronavirus vaccination centers: Magic Mountain, the Pomona Fairplex, Cal State Northridge, the Forum in Inglewood and the County Office of Education in Downey. Those who are eligible can make an appointment at vaccinatelacounty.com.
But Dr. Paul Simon, the L.A. County Health Department’s chief science officer, said those five largest vaccination sites, which have a daily capacity of about 4,000 shots, will be operating at much lower capacity this week — likely in the 2,000-2,500 range — because of a woefully short supply and the overburdened online reservation system.
Simon said Friday that the most recent figures showed that 441,140 doses of vaccine have already been administered in the county, although he said that number is likely much higher due to delays in tallying vaccination totals. As of this week, the county had received about 853,000 total doses.
“We do understand how important it is to get vaccine out as quickly as possible,” Simon said, urging patience for those who have had trouble scheduling an appointment. “”The vaccination effort will likely extend well into 2022.”
A possible resumption of outdoor dining could be the biggest economic boon of the announcement. On Sunday, the California Restaurant Association sent its members a letter announcing the pending state decision, saying, “we thought you’d like to know this good news.”
But it was unclear if the state’s move will automatically reinstate outdoor dining in Los Angeles County, which had prohibited patio service prior to the state’s regional stay-at-home order being imposed. The California Restaurant Association and several eateries sued, prompting a judge to rule the county’s ban was imposed arbitrarily. But that ruling was put on hold by a state appeals court.
The county’s ban, however, technically expired on Dec. 16, but patio dining remained prohibited under the state’s order, which is now lifted.
Attorney Mark Geragos, who sued the county on behalf of his own downtown restaurant and another eatery in Sherman Oaks, wrote on Twitter Monday morning, “There is no prohibition against outdoor dining” in the county now that the state’s order has been lifted.
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who argued against a dining ban, issued a statement saying, “I support following the governor’s recommended guidelines for Southern California, and reopening outdoor dining, personal care services and other industries that were previously closed by these orders. A data-driven and pragmatic policy approach is essential to protecting public health, while balancing the devastating social, emotional and economic impacts of this virus.”
I support following the Governor’s recommendation for L.A. County to reopen outdoor dining, personal services & other industries. Data-driven & pragmatic policy is essential to protect public health while balancing social, emotional & economic impacts. https://t.co/fZv2FFfpow
— Supervisor Kathryn Barger (@kathrynbarger) January 25, 2021
Supervisor Janice Hahn also said she hopes restaurants are allowed to resume outdoor service in the county.
“We should align ourselves with the state as much as possible, which means, among other things, reopening outdoor dining with commonsense health protocols in place as soon as possible,” Hahn said. “The restaurant industry was devastated by this lengthy shutdown and I know this would be welcome news to them.”
Now that Gov Newsom has lifted the stay-at-home order, the question is what is L.A. County going to do?
We should align ourselves with the state as much as possible which means, among other things, reopening outdoor dining with commonsense health protocols in place.
— Janice Hahn (@SupJaniceHahn) January 25, 2021
As of Monday morning, the county’s website still indicated that all personal-care businesses such as hair salons, nail salons, massage businesses and barbershops remain closed. County health officials were set to hold a press conference at 2 p.m.
Bars remain closed in all counties in the “purple” tier of the state’s four-level economic reopening matrix. The vast majority of counties in the state, including all of Southern California, are in the “purple” tier.
Tom Tapp and City News Service contributed to this report.