LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Citing decreasing coronavirus hospitalization and ICU rates, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday a relaxation of restrictions that could allow more businesses to reopen more quickly in a majority of the state's counties, but Los Angeles County will likely be unable to move much faster.
Newsom also said that if the current trends continue, the state may be able to significantly ease restrictions statewide in the next few weeks, possibly allowing professional sporting events to resume without spectators and hair salons to reopen in June.
Under the new rules, Newsom said roughly 53 of the state's 58 counties would likely qualify to move deeper into Phase Two of the state's recovery roadmap, allowing more businesses in those counties to open faster than in some other counties.
Such openings, however, would be contingent on the impacts of the virus in individual counties, meaning Los Angeles County -- which has been more dramatically impacted by COVID-19, representing half of the state's COVID-19 cases and deaths -- could move significantly slower in reopening more businesses.
"L.A. County is in a different position than other parts of the state,'' Newsom said, singling out the county as one that will likely "be cautious'' in relaxing local restrictions.
Barbara Ferrer, head of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said the county would examine the new guidelines.
"If we're eligible, of course we would also be applying just to allow us to make a decision based on local conditions,'' she said.
"It (the local variance) doesn't tell you what you have to do, it just allows you more flexibility. So we appreciate the governor and his staff for issuing new guidance.''
Officials in many parts of the state -- including Orange County -- have been pushing to reopen more sectors of their economies. Officials in Orange, Riverside, San Diego and San Bernardino counties recently teamed up to ask the governor for the ability to more deeper into Phase Two.
But local officials have pointed to what they viewed as unrealistic benchmarks counties needed to meet to accelerate business reopenings. One of those guidelines mandated that counties have no deaths from COVID-19 for a two-week period.
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, the president of the California State Association of Counties, said the governor's announcement Monday was "very significant for Orange County,'' saying the county has met "the parameters that have been modified for 53 of the 58 counties to move forward through the latter part of Phase Two.''
The previous benchmark of no COVID-19-related deaths for 14 days -- which was the biggest stumbling block for more populous counties -- has been done away with, Bartlett said.
"They're really focusing more on positivity rates and hospitalizations, so the metrics have now changed to something that makes more sense, particularly for the larger counties,'' Bartlett said.
Local public health officers have to file paperwork on their COVID-19- related statistics with the state to get approval to reopen businesses, Bartlett said. Depending on how long the turnaround is with the state, Orange County could have its Phase Two businesses open by this weekend or next week at the latest, Bartlett said.
Orange County has had a spike in deaths in the past couple of weeks, but most of the fatalities are from outbreaks in skilled nursing home facilities, where county officials have increased testing and supplies of personal protection equipment, Bartlett said.
Orange County is at half-capacity in hospitalization so it can withstand a surge, Bartlett said.
"Orange County has done incredibly well relative to COVID-19,'' she said. "Our hospitalization rate is low, our positive counts on a daily basis are relatively low compared to other counties and our death rate is lower than other counties. Our statistics for COVID-19 are much better than our surrounding counties.''
The looser restrictions announced by Newsom include requirements that counties have no more than a 5% increase in hospitalizations over a seven-day period, have no more than an 8% positive rate among people tested for coronavirus and have 15 trained patient contact-tracing workers per 100,000 population.
The governor said he was encouraged by recent statewide statistics that have shown a 7.5% decrease in coronavirus hospitalizations over the past two weeks, an 8.7% decline in intensive-care unit patients in that same period and an "unprecedented number of masks'' and other personal protective equipment being distributed throughout the state.
He said those trends prompted the relaxation of rules for individual counties to move forward with more business reopenings. And he said if the trend continues, more statewide restrictions could be lifted in the coming weeks -- potentially leading to professional sports resuming in June.
"We are also looking forward in the next few weeks at a number of significant milestones that are worthy of highlighting,'' he said. "We expect if we hold the rate of transmissions, if we hold the positivity rate down, we continue to do justice to the hospitalization and ICU numbers, we'll be making announcements statewide ... that would allow for retail not just to be picked up, but in-store retail to be loosened up.
"In addition to that sporting events, pro sports, in that first week or so of June without spectators and modifications and very prescriptive conditions also can begin to move forward and a number of other sectors of our economy, will open up ... if we hold these trendlines in the next number of weeks. That includes, for example, getting a haircut, which is very meaningful. That could be done on a regional variance but it will be able to be advanced we believe in the next few weeks even statewide.''
Ferrer, the L.A. County public health director, said the idea of pro sports returning is an exciting concept, and she is awaiting guidance from the state on how such a move will occur.
"Again, we're not able as a county to move faster than the state,'' she said. "... I know that the players associations and the teams have been busy drafting a set of protocols so that they can ensure that they're able to do this as safe as possible. I would assume this will all for the next while be spectator free, but I know for all us we'd be very excited to be able to see our teams get ready to be able to play again.
"So I look forward to hearing from the state what the protocols are going to be and the directives to make sure the activity is able to happen in a way that keeps everybody as safe as possible,'' she said.