In summary

Looser rules mean 53 of California’s counties qualify to reopen stores and restaurants — but they will need to prepare for new outbreaks. 

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Gov. Gavin Newsom today eased the rules for when counties can reopen restaurants and stores, clearing the way for 53 of 58 California counties to qualify under the new coronavirus standards.

Some eligible counties may not choose to pick up the pace for restarting their economies. But those that do must show that hospitalizations and new coronavirus infections are holding steady or dropping. They also will need adequate contact tracing, testing capacity, hospital beds and personal protective equipment to cope with any new outbreaks. 

The move to relax the state requirements for reopening came after four Southern California counties pushed back against previous rules that Newsom announced two weeks ago.

Under the original requirements, counties wishing to reopen faster than the statewide order needed to have no deaths from the novel coronavirus over the previous two weeks.

Two-dozen counties qualified to accelerate reopening. But officials in RiversideSan BernardinoSan Diego and Orange counties called the rules unrealistic and asked Newsom to meet “to identify strategies for achieving a safe, reasonable, and sustainable reopening of our economy in coordination with the state.” 

Counties throughout the state already are allowed to open manufacturing, stores with curbside pickup and other services like car washes and pet-grooming. But local governments that want to open dine-in restaurants and shopping malls must apply for a variance.

Newsom’s announcement today set looser rules for those variances, dropping the zero-deaths requirement. Counties also must have fewer than 25 new coronavirus infections per 100,000 people in the past 14 days, compared with 10 in 100,000 under the standards set two weeks ago.

Alternatively, counties are also eligible if less than 8 percent of the people tested are positive for the virus. Adding the proportion of positive tests as an alternative aims to encourage counties to increase testing, even if that means more new cases are detected. 

“A lot of counties may pull back on the testing because they don’t want to see positives,” Newsom said. “Again, it’s the rate of positives that is really the focus from our health perspective.” 

One new requirement is for hospitalizations to hold steady or drop — meaning no more than 20 new hospitalizations on a given day over the previous two weeks or no increase larger than 5 percent per day over a seven-day average. 

The 53 counties now eligible for a speedier reopening is a rough estimate, according to Newsom, who did not name the five that have not made the cut. He did say, however, that there were concerns about the numbers of cases in Tulare County related to skilled nursing facilities as well as infections among employees of meatpacking plants in Kings County. 

“Just because we’re creating the capacity and the availability to move into phase two doesn’t mean that every county is ready,” Newsom said. “LA County, as an example, I imagine, will be cautious in that respect.” 

Los Angeles and Kings counties did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and Orange County Public Information Officer Molly Nicholson said the county is still analyzing the new requirements. 

Tulare County cases haven’t yet stabilized. “Therefore we do not meet the governor’s criteria for stabilization or downtrending of cases,” said Carrie Monteiro, health and human services spokesperson. “However, our public health officials are continuing to work on our adaptation plans.” 

Lana Culp, public information officer from San Bernardino County, said that the county “probably” doesn’t meet the new criteria to accelerate reopening, but Riverside County Board Chair V. Manuel Perez told the Desert Sun that he believes Riverside does. San Diego County Wilma Wooten said in a livestream that her county meets the new rules as well. 

The state’s public health department also announced today that curbside libraries and drive-in movies could open with restrictions. Places of worship can reopen counseling and office spaces, but services are still on hold.

Newsom said that other businesses, such as beauty salons, gyms and spectator-free sports, are expected to be granted permission to reopen in the next few weeks.

Public health experts commended Newsom’s data-driven approach to reopening.

“Because we have these backup measures, if we start seeing sudden resurgence, then they can reinstate the more restrictive measures,” said Lee Riley, professor of infectious disease at the University of California Berkeley’s school of public health. “I think we need to do something to, kind of, see what happens. We can’t just keep doing the same thing.” 

Jeffrey Martin, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed.

“Pretty much all you can do is put forward these kinds of guidelines and see what happens,” he said. “I admire the data-driven approach. It’s not just being done on a hunch.” 

Still, Martin said, he’d like to see a few criteria added to Newsom’s list. He wants counties to measure the length of time it takes to test people and turn around results, and to track how long it takes to interview people who test positive and trace their contacts. He said shortening the lag between identifying infections and tracing contacts is key to limiting the virus’s spread.

“This is not complex calculus — these are things that can be measured and followed,” Martin said.

Ultimately, however, the best strategy for reopening the economy isn’t one that can be completely determined with science, he said.

Scientists can measure the relationship between increased mobility and increased transmission of the virus in communities with ongoing spread, Martin said. But there are also indirect socioeconomic and mental health effects of the shelter-in-place order that need to be acknowledged. 

“What the right level here is is no longer a scientific question,” Martin said. “It’s a philosophical question.”

Nigel Duara contributed reporting to this story.

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Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master’s degree to become a...