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As Shelter in Place Loosens, What Do New Bay Area Guidelines Mean For You?

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Chelsea Riley (right) and her father James Riley line up to receive free hand sanitizer and a face mask in the Fillmore on April 17, 2020. If you're intending to join a gathering or protest, remember to observe COVID-19 safety practices. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Five Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley announced they are loosening some shelter-in-place restrictions starting Monday, May 18. The city of Berkeley, San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties will now allow retail businesses to operate curbside pickup, and manufacturing and warehouses to resume if they meet detailed guidelines for safe operation.

Public health officials say they’ve been monitoring the number of new cases and hospitalizations since May 4, when they last eased restrictions, and are ready for Phase 2 of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening roadmap. They applaud the many Bay Area residents who are following public health guidelines, which have worked to keep instances of new hospitalizations low. And they recognize the need to begin slowly reopening shuttered businesses.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's roadmap for reopening.
Gov. Gavin Newsom's roadmap for reopening.

“We need to do all these different layers to continue to slow this virus,” said Alameda County Interim Health Officer Dr. Erica Pan on KQED’s Forum program. “We also need to slowly resume some things that we think are low risk and that people can do safely.”

As restrictions loosen, public health officers do expect to see more cases of COVID-19, but feel more prepared to handle those cases now than when the shelter-in-place order was first issued in mid-March. However, officials could tighten restrictions again if they see cases and hospitalizations spiking.

While no county is yet hitting testing goals, all have made substantial progress. Public health officials say a combination of testing and contact tracing will be crucial as more businesses and activities open up.

Now, health officials will watch how recently loosened guidelines around curbside pickup and manufacturing affect confirmed cases and hospitalizations before moving onto the next phase, which would include adapting and reopening indoor retail spaces, schools, day cares and offices. San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Grant Colfax estimates the counties are still two to four weeks away from that next phase.


Social Gatherings

Many people are tired of communicating with friends and loved ones entirely through technology. They’re eager to begin seeing people in person and are frustrated that public health officials haven’t posted guidelines for how to do so safely.

“It’s a huge issue,” said San Francisco Chronicle health reporter Erin Allday on Forum. “Part of the reason people can’t find guidelines for those specific things is because they still don’t want people doing those things.”

That means the official public health guidance is still no small gatherings, no backyard parties and no visits to extended families. Up until now, Bay Area public health officers have made their determinations based on data, and they still don’t have data to support allowing these types of social activities, Allday said.

At the same time, public health officials understand that Bay Area residents are getting antsy under quarantine, and many are beginning to make their own subjective risk assessments.

“They recognize this can’t go on forever, this complete isolation, families not interacting,” Allday said.

The problem is, they’re not sure yet how people can safely “expand their bubbles” without dramatically increasing the risk of infection. One thing they all agree on, however, is that universal adoption of masks would help.

“Masks are a clear intervention that reduces transmission,” Colfax said. “Remember, if you are wearing a mask, you are protecting others in case you are potentially infected with the virus.”

Workplace Safety

Businesses that are reopening for curbside retail or manufacturing must follow state safety guidelines and post a detailed plan for keeping both customers and workers safe.

Some of those requirements include things like signage, plans to keep workers and customers 6 feet from one another, training employees, staggering shifts and making sure they know the symptoms of the virus. Businesses are also expected to report suspected cases to their public health offices and document them so the county can trace and contain its spread.

Some care providers, like dentists, report they’ve received notification that patients must have been tested for COVID-19 seven days before coming in for an appointment. Colfax says people need to get used to the idea that frequent testing will be part of the new normal for many businesses.

“As we issue new guidelines and directives, various businesses and care providers are going to have to adjust to this new normal,” Colfax said.

When Will Schools and Summer Camps Reopen?

Many parents and caregivers are getting tired of facilitating distance learning and are eager to know if summer camps will be open this year. The answer: It’s hard to know, but almost certainly not for another month or so at the earliest. Allday said that’s based on a rough, back-of-the-napkin calculation that public health officers wait two weeks to see how the change affects new cases and hospitalizations with each step of loosening restrictions.

Coronavirus resources

“Taking it all the way out to summer camps — it’s really hard to manage social distancing with summer camps — it’s going to be awhile before we talk about that,” Allday predicted.

State education officials are currently working on what school could look like in the fall. But even if kids head back to school, it will likely include some form of distance learning so not all kids are physically in the building at the same time, Allday said. And many parents fear sending their children back to school, especially if they live in a multigenerational household.

“I think it’s very important that people realize the virus is still here,” Colfax said. “The virus doesn’t have a timeline and we need to learn how to best reduce risk as we move forward.”

While some restrictions have eased a little bit, the general public health guidance remains the same: Stay home as much as you can. When you go out, wear a mask and stay at least 6 feet away from other people. Practice basic hygiene and be mindful of surfaces other people have touched. All these steps continue to slow the spread of the disease and give officials more time to procure test kits, train contact tracing teams and ensure hospitals can provide the best care possible to people who do contract COVID-19.

“I’m hopeful that as we take these incremental steps to the new normal, which will include wearing masks, social distancing, basic hygiene to slow the spread of COVID-19 that the virus will be slowed,” Colfax said.


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