/L.A. and Orange counties on the brink of entering orange tier – Los Angeles Times

L.A. and Orange counties on the brink of entering orange tier – Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles and Orange counties have passed a new marker on what they hope is a return to normalcy from the coronavirus, clearing the way for them to further relax restrictions on businesses and activities.

Effective Wednesday, both counties will officially move into California’s orange tier — the third step in the state’s reopening process, according to state data released Tuesday.

It was a significant move for the heavily populated regions, neither of which has yet managed to get the number of new infections low enough to progress this far through the four-category, color-coded blueprint that the state unveiled seven months ago.

County officials said the incremental victory was a hard fought gain in the battle against COVID-19 — and a testament to how both individual actions and the collective vigilance of residents and businesses helped turn the tide of the pandemic following a brutal fall and winter wave.

“We are committed, along with everyone, to move forward, and we are excited about this opportunity to stay on a recovery journey,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week when asked about the possible progression.

But that optimism comes with caution. Coronavirus cases, though low in California, are on the rise elsewhere in the country — a reminder of the continued danger and the risk of potentially moving too quickly back toward pre-pandemic norms.

“I think the reason we’re seeing this plateauing and a bit of a little increase that we hope doesn’t turn into a surge is because we are really doing things prematurely right now with regard to opening up,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said during a briefing Monday.

California counties that reach the orange tier can allow bars to reopen outdoors with some modifications. Bars will no longer be required to also serve food.

Capacity restrictions can also be lifted in stores, although social distancing and other pandemic safety modifications still apply; houses of worship, museums, zoos and aquariums can raise their indoor capacity from 25% to 50%; restaurants and movie theaters can raise indoor capacity from 25% or 100 people (whichever is fewer) to 50% capacity or 200 people; and indoor gyms and yoga studios increase from 10% to 25%.

Bowling alleys can reopen with modifications at 25% capacity. Card rooms and satellite wagering sites can also reopen indoors at 25% capacity.

Offices in nonessential industries can also reopen, though the state says workers should still be encouraged to work remotely.

Starting Thursday, amusement parks can also reopen at up to 25% capacity in the orange tier.

Effective that same day, California is also allowing limited fan attendance for outdoor sports and live performances, with the cap set at 33% capacity for counties in the orange tier.

The state’s regulations set the floor for the rules that must be in place. However, local health officials can apply stricter standards, if they feel doing so is warranted.

California’s tiered system categorizes counties based on on three criteria: coronavirus case rates, adjusted based on the number of tests performed; the rate of positive test results; and a health-equity metric intended to ensure that the positive test rate in poorer communities is not significantly higher than the county’s overall figure.

The four designated tiers range from purple, in which coronavirus transmission is considered widespread, and indoor operations are suspended or severely limited across a wide array of business sectors; to red, with fewer restrictions; to orange, with even fewer; and finally, yellow, in which most businesses can open indoors with modifications.

Reaching the orange tier requires a county to have an adjusted rate of 3.9 or fewer new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people each day and a test positivity rate of under 5%, among other metrics.

Counties must meet the required case and testing levels for two consecutive weeks to advance to a less restrictive tier and stay in a tier at least three weeks before advancing again.

The continued advancement of counties though California’s tier framework comes as federal officials are growing increasingly alarmed at the nationwide trajectory of the pandemic.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters Monday that she’s been gripped by a feeling of “impending doom.”

“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope,” she said. “But right now, I’m scared.”

Later that same day, President Biden implored Americans to maintain precautions, warning that, “We’re in a life-and-death race with a virus that is spreading quickly.”

Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said “there’s no question that we’re going into a fourth surge” as “the data has indicated rising cases in most states now for a couple weeks.”

Given the current state of the pandemic, Toner said Monday it’s especially important to keep restrictions on indoor activities.

“We shouldn’t be allowing restaurants and bars and movie theaters and places like that to resume anything that resembles normal operations,” he said. “We need to keep the density of those indoor spaces down.”

Officials have pointed out that, unlike some other states, California has kept a number of coronavirus-related rules — such as a mask mandate — in place. Businesses also are still largely required to modify their operations, such as by reducing capacity, stepping up cleaning and disinfection protocols and reconfiguring seating/queueing areas to ensure physical distancing.

“When you say, ‘Pull off your mask, let’s just go back or revert to normal,’ then that puts the virus back in control, as opposed to the work that all of you are doing to keep this virus at bay,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a press conference in Orange County last week. “I want to keep that progress. We’re not going to run that 90-yard dash.”

Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

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