Newsom Announces New, More Vigilant Reopening Plan for California Counties

A health care worker gives a girl a throat swab test at a drive-in coronavirus testing center at M.T.O. Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism on Aug. 11, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced a new process for reopening businesses that is slower and more gradual than what the state tried, unsuccessfully, earlier this summer amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The new rules create a four-tier, color-coded system that counties will move through based on their case numbers and positive test rates.

That process shifts more decision-making power to the state and away from local jurisdictions, although officials emphasized that counties can adopt rules that are more restrictive (but not less) that those prescribed by the state.

The new rules — dubbed “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” — come nearly two months after Newsom shut down bars, indoor dining at restaurants and a slew of other businesses to stem a surge in new cases following the state’s first reopening attempt.

After being forced to close businesses for a second time, the state is “making sure that we really hold strongly to these buffers in terms of criteria and data, and holding that criteria and data in line for an extended period of time,” Newsom said.

“We’re going to be more stubborn this time and have a mandatory wait time between moves. We didn’t do that last time,” he added.

In simple terms, the uniform statewide rules are about calibrating business activities with how widespread the virus is within each county. The more cases and positive tests, the tighter the restrictions on restaurants, retail shops and other businesses.

The new approach is aimed at ensuring the state’s cases don’t skyrocket when businesses begin to reopen.

However, many details about how the process would work remained unclear.

Counties will now have to meet specific metrics for three weeks before they can reopen certain businesses. Newsom didn’t immediately say which businesses will be included in which color tier or what the reopening process will look like.

Each county will fall in to one of four colored tiers – purple, red, orange and yellow (from most to least restrictive) – based on the local prevalence of COVID-19 and the extent of community spread. That color will indicate how different local sectors can operate. For example, in the most restrictive “Widespread” (purple) tier, restaurants can only operate outdoors. But once a county has achieved a lower level of disease transmission and moved into the “Substantial” (red) tier, restaurants can operate with 25% capacity indoors.

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The new process also allows counties to partially open some sectors and progressively add to their operations as disease transmission decreases. It also includes new protocols for quickly tightening back up again quickly if conditions worsen.

The state also launched a new site Friday that allows residents to see what tier their county is in and what activities are allowed.

The state will now also report virus statistics, such as case numbers, on a weekly basis, officials said.

Newsom's announcement comes as a growing chorus of businesses and local governments across the state demand more clarity on reopening guidelines.

Counties need to understand clearly “what thresholds to aim for and the public health data that will determine success or failure,” the California State Association of Counties said in a recent statement.

That was echoed by the California Restaurant Association, which has seen the state’s once-thriving food industry wither under restrictions that have closed most indoor dining rooms and left many businesses to survive on takeout, delivery and limited outdoor seating. The association estimates as many as 1 million workers have been furloughed or laid off.

“We’d like to see restaurant dining rooms reopen as soon as possible,” association president Jot Condie said.

“Restaurants in every corner of the state are on life support right now. Every day that passes with a dining room closed, a restaurant owner is more likely to shut the doors permanently,” he said. “It’s gotten to a crisis level.”

Riverside County Supervisor Karen Spiegel, who has recovered from a bout with the virus, said she hopes the state plan recognizes different levels of risk that come with different business activities. She’s puzzled why shoppers can fill a Costco while indoor hair salons remain off limits.

Using metrics, the state needs to change how businesses are categorized, Spiegel said. “We have to do more of a risk-based approach.”

With nearly 69,000 infections, California has the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the nation and the third-most deaths — 12,690. But since the closures last month, the average number of daily cases has been falling along with the infection rates and number of hospitalizations, the latter of which peaked at 8,820 on July 21 and has since dropped to about 4,200.

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Prior to the new plan, the state had relied on a so-called county “watch list.”

Most of California’s 58 counties, including the most populous — Los Angeles — have remained on that list because of consistently high numbers of cases, infection rates or hospitalizations. As a result, those counties have had to restrict certain businesses from operating, delay classroom instruction and place strict limits on other activities, such as attending indoor religious services.

But as the state’s coronavirus data has improved in recent weeks, some counties got off the list, including San Diego and Orange counties, the second- and third-largest counties by population.