Beginning of California Reopening Businesses Is 'Weeks' Away, Says Gov. Newsom

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A Muni bus stops in front of the nightclub Bruno's, which has a sign that reads, 'Save Lives. Stay Home,' on Mission Street in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California is weeks away from beginning to emerge from its coronavirus-induced stay-at-home order, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday as he presented a phased plan for reopening businesses and returning Californians to work and school.

The administration's plan, outlined in four phases, provided the clearest guidance yet on how the state plans to rouse its shuttered economy, schools and child care facilities, while throwing cold water on calls from various regions in the state to open sooner.

"We believe we are weeks, not months away from making meaningful modifications," to the state's stay-at-home order, Newsom said.

The governor's plan prioritizes schools and child care facilities in the next round of openings, potentially expediting the beginning of the next school year.

"We are considering the prospect of an even earlier school year into the fall, as early as late-July, early-August," Newsom added. "As a parent myself ... I think we might want to consider getting that school year moved up a little bit."

Since the closure of California schools in mid-March, the state has attempted to build up its "distance learning" program, through investments in internet connectivity and by garnering donations of laptops and tablets.

But Newsom acknowledged the challenge of replicating a classroom experience for millions of California children.

"We recognize that there has been a learning loss because of this disruption," he said.

The reopening of schools and child care facilities will occur in stage two of the administration's strategy — along with businesses beyond those currently deemed "essential." That includes some manufacturers, along with stores offering curbside pickup of items ordered in advance.

Before opening their doors, these businesses would have to modify their workplaces to allow for physical distancing and provide employees with wage replacements if they need to stay home sick.

At the same time, California would have to increase the availability of testing and ensure hospital capacity if cases of coronavirus begin to rise.

"It’s one thing to open a business, but if there’s no demand it’s a false promise," Newsom said. "I deeply want to emphasize the importance of protecting customers ... and workers, at the same time we’re emphasizing businesses as entities in the abstract."

Next, in stage three would come businesses and gatherings that traditionally involve more close contact: nail and hair salons, gyms, churches and weddings.

Those openings are likely "months, not weeks" away, said Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, who described that phase as including "those areas that are higher risk, those sectors that we think will take a lot more modification to adapt in a way that people can move with lower risk.”

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Newsom has compared the gradual relaxation of current restrictions to "a dimmer, not a light switch" — and the full illumination of California's economy was outlined in stage four, the end of the state's stay-at-home order.

Only then, Newsom said, would concerts, conventions and sporting events in front of thousands of fans be allowed to continue. By that point, the state would require the development of antivirals to treat the sick, widespread testing and plenty of surge capacity in the state's health care system.

The unveiling of the next steps for the state's economy gave Newsom's team a chance to push back on calls from regions of California that have agitated to open more quickly.

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In recent days, elected officials from the Central Coast and north state regions have asked Newsom to loosen restrictions for their counties, which have seen far fewer cases and deaths than urban parts of the state.

But the statewide guidelines unveiled on Tuesday only allow for regions to set their own benchmarks "following stage two, once a statewide COVID-19 surveillance system is made possible through testing."

“We know that this virus doesn’t respect boundaries of counties necessarily," Angell said. "We know that as there are modifications across in orders, people move differently across there."

The guidelines for businesses and schools reflect just a piece of Newsom's blueprint for reopening the state.

Others include dramatic increases in the state's ability to test residents for the coronavirus and track potential cases, the development of therapeutics to treat the virus, the protection of at-risk residents such as those in nursing homes, and, if the state is hit with another outbreak, the ability to increase capacity in hospitals and potentially reinstate a stay-at-home mandate.