SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a dramatic relaxation Monday of health standards to reopen the state, a move that could allow nearly every county to proceed more quickly, and he offered the possibility of pro sports returning — without fans — by early June.
The announcement marked a significant departure from strict criteria Newsom laid out just over a week ago that would have prevented most large counties from reopening and came as residents and business owners have become increasingly restless to return to normal.
While retail businesses may open for curbside pickup statewide, the new criteria would let counties that want to move faster to allow dining in restaurants and other services to reopen if they win state approval. He also suggested that it may only be a matter of weeks before people can get their hair cut or worship in a church.
“Bottom line is: People can go at their own pace, and we are empowering our local health directors and county officials that understand their local communities and conditions,” Newsom said. “We’re going to start seeing a lot more activity, let’s just make sure we do it thoughtfully and very, very strategically.”
Newsom credited the change in rules to a decline in state hospitalizations in the last two weeks, the distribution of more protective gear for healthcare workers and the state’s ability to test more people for the virus.
Newsom was the first governor in the nation to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, in mid-March. It’s not just officials in rural counties who believe they could now qualify to ease restrictions at a quicker pace. San Diego County appears to be ready to do so too.
San Diego was among large counties, particularly in Southern California, that said the earlier criteria were too restrictive. San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman said he believes their efforts helped sway the governor.
“It’s at least something more manageable and achievable than it was a week ago,” said Hagman, who believes the county is ready to meet the guidelines.
Twenty-four counties in mostly rural Northern California already won approval under the old guidance.
The new criteria eliminate requirements that a county have no deaths and no more than than 10 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Instead, counties must have no more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents or no higher than an 8% positive rate among people tested for the coronavirus. They also must have no higher than a 5% increase in hospitalizations over a one week period or no more than 20 people hospitalized per day over a two week period. The latter will ensure small counties don’t get penalized for just one or two extra hospitalizations.
Other criteria on hospital capacity, testing and contacting everyone who might be infected by each person who tests positive for COVID-19 remain in place.
The Democratic governor didn’t say which five of the state’s 58 counties he expected would not meet his criteria, though he pointed to Los Angeles, Kings and Tulare County as those facing challenges. He cited Tulare due to cases at nursing homes and Kings due to cases at meat packing plants.
Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous and with the most coronavirus cases, faces broader challenges, he said.
“Just because we’re creating the capacity and the availability to move into Phase 2 doesn’t mean that every county is ready,” Newsom said. “Los Angeles County, as an example, I imagine will be cautious in that respect.”
Newsom said counties will soon be able to allow shopping in stores and hair salons to reopen. He said churches could resume services within weeks. Hair salons and churches in particular have become a flash point in the fight over reopening.
He was vague about how sports could resume by early June, though he said it would to be done without spectators and with “deep modifications” that would protect players and staff. That was a sharp change from comments he made just over a week ago when he said it was difficult to imagine what leagues would do if a player tested positive, suggesting they might have to quarantine an entire team.
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said teams and players unions have been drafting plans to return to play and she was excited to hear that the governor may allow sports to resume.
“I know for all of us we’d be very excited to be able to see our teams starting to get ready to play again,” Ferrer said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
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