California Reverses Stay-at-Home Order as Conditions Improve

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Business owners hailed Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to lift stay-at-home orders across California in response to improving coronavirus conditions, but local health officials expressed concern that it may cause residents to let down their guard.

California is experiencing a “flattening of the curve,” Newsom said during a virtual news conference on Monday. "Everything that should be up is up, everything that should be down is down — case rates, positivity rates, hospitalizations, ICUs.”

The metrics are markedly improved since last month, when some Southern California hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients were crafting emergency plans for rationing care.

Newsom drafted the stay-at-home order in December as virus cases spiked and in anticipation of surges from holiday gatherings. He divided the state into five regions and ultimately the order was imposed in four of them because their ICU capacity fell below the state-mandated 15%. Only rural far Northern California stayed above the threshold.

Southern California, which accounts for more than half the state population of nearly 40 million, still has an ICU capacity of 0%, according to state data. But Newsom said state modeling for the next four weeks projects cases will fall and ICU capacity will rise to 33%, the highest of any of the state's regions.

The lifting of the stay-at-home order allows restaurants to serve diners outdoors and places of worship to offer services outside. Hair and nail salons and other businesses may reopen and retailers can have more shoppers in their stores.

The state also is lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, but San Francisco is keeping it in place. Mayor London Breed said outdoor restaurant dining can resume Thursday.

Ryan Toland, owner of San Francisco's Parker restaurant, said the business lost 60% of its revenue during the pandemic.

“It's been a tough year," Toland said. “So outdoor dining, if we can open up, will really help us get a little bit closer to where we need to be. But it's still not enough.”

California's latest and worst surge of the pandemic started in mid-October. In a little more than two months the state recorded more than 2 million cases and hospitalizations grew nearly tenfold to almost 22,000.

As the sickest patients die, the death toll has exploded. The state is averaging 504 deaths a day and its total now tops 37,000, second only to New York.

About 23,000 people are now testing positive for the virus per day, down more than 7,000 from a week ago, with a test positivity rate that has fallen steadily to 8% from a high of nearly 20% at the height of the surge.

In Los Angeles County, home to 10 million people, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer stressed the need for residents to continue to abide by social distancing and mask recommendations otherwise “we'll be in the horrible position of needing to once again backtrack.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city of Los Angeles will align with county rules allowing outdoor dining at restaurants starting Friday.

“We must continue to protect our medical workers, our loved ones, and our community. That means wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing, and following the public health guidelines,” Garcetti said.

Most California counties are returning to the most restrictive tier of a four-level, color-coded system for determining what businesses can open. It allows up to three households to gather outside, the resumption of low-contact recreation like golf and skiing, and the reopening of outdoor gyms. Bars and wineries that don't serve food can't open.

The state had refused to make public the four-week projection for ICU capacities in each region. It did so late Monday after receiving harsh criticism from open government advocates and others who said the public deserves to know information behind decisions affecting their lives. However, officials did not reveal underlying data for the projections.

The state predicted the following regional ICU capacity in four weeks: 25% for the San Francisco Bay Area; 27.3% in Greater Sacramento and 22.3% in the San Joaquin Valley. The 18.9% in Northern California is a significant dip in capacity, which now sits above 40%. Officials didn't explain the drop.

Health experts had mixed views on the state lifting the order.

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a University of California, Los Angeles professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases, said little evidence exists to show that outdoor dining or personal care services are major sources of coronavirus spread and that the state's overall metrics are improving.

“I think it does make sense to allow people to get back to work and get back to their lives somewhat, and to also continue to emphasize the issue of masking and physical distancing indoors” and vaccinations, he said.

Joshua Salomon, a professor of medicine with the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at Stanford University, said it is a concern that the state is lifting its stay-home order despite the continued coronavirus spread.

“At this point we really are still in a very dangerous situation and we need to be quite careful not to reopen too broadly and too quickly,” he said.

Meanwhile, Newsom's political opponents and even members of his own party criticized the decision. Republicans said Newsom was relaxing the rules in response to political pressure and the threat of a recall election.

Several Democratic legislators, meanwhile, said they'd been kept out of the loop on the state's changing rules.

“If you think state legislators were blindsided by, and confused about, the shifting & confusing public health directives, you'd be correct,” Democratic Assemblywoman Laura Friedman of Glendale tweeted.

Newsom said the appropriate people had been notified in advance and said the state's goal was to not delay an announcement that could give a sense of optimism to businesses and families.

He called suggestions he was lifting the order due to political pressure “nonsense.”