In summary

Imposing the strictest restrictions in months, Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a regional stay-at-home order tied to an alarmingly low number of hospital beds amid a statewide coronavirus surge.

Updated Dec. 5, 2020: Available intensive care hospital beds fell below 15% in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley regions of the state, triggering new lockdown rules that will take effect late Sunday. Five Bay Area counties rapidly approaching the trigger threshold — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and Santa Clara — also opted to impose the more stringent stay-at-home measures beginning Sunday.

In the face of a “surge on top of a surge,” Gov. Gavin Newsom announced today the strictest measure in months for a regional stay-at-home order tied to the number of intensive care beds as hospitals near their capacity in the face of a statewide coronavirus surge. 

The governor’s order calls for tougher restrictions when ICU bed capacity drops below 15% in any of five regions. The state reported Northern California was at 18.6%, Bay Area 25.4%, Greater Sacramento 22%, San Joaquin Valley 19.7% and Southern California 20.6%. With those numbers, Newsom said the order could be triggered in the next day or two for most regions. Once initiated, the order would last three weeks. The governor urged people to stay within their households as much as possible to help stem the spread. 

“If we don’t act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed, if we don’t act now, we’ll continue to see a death rate climb; more lives lost,” Newsom said during a press conference.

Under the order, people will have to stay home as much as possible as playgrounds, museums, movie theaters, salons and barbershops shut back down. Restaurants could only offer take-out and people can still go out for essential things like groceries, exercise and doctor appointments. K-12 schools that have reopened can remain open, and retail stores can operate indoors at 20% capacity.

California is kicking off what could be the worst month of the pandemic yet. Hospital admissions have surpassed the previous peak from the summer. At least one county, Imperial, is again transferring ICU patients to hospitals outside county lines, according to the California Hospital Association. In the spring, Imperial County sent more than 500 patients to hospitals as far as Sacramento and the Bay Area.

By Christmas Eve, 112% of the state’s ICU beds could be occupied if current trends continue, Newsom said earlier this week. On Wednesday, the state recorded more than 18,500 new cases, Newsom said — the most in a single day since the pandemic began. With the new restrictions, he said the state hoped to head off “too much concentrated retail activity” during what is normally the busy holiday shopping season.

Hospitals struggling with their current coronavirus caseloads are bracing for a delayed onslaught. In Imperial County, the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients at El Centro Regional Medical Center — one of two hospitals in the county — is already nearing peaks seen during previous surges. Of the 128 of patients occupying the facility’s 161 licensed beds, 60 are coronavirus patients, according to Adolphe Edward, the hospital’s chief executive officer.

“At the highest highest of what I would call COVID 1.0 — first wave — we had 65 patients,” Edward said. “We have not seen yet the effects of Thanksgiving. And that’s coming.”

For businesses and their workers, the big test will be whether keeping their operations going at limited capacity will be “productive enough” to prevent mass closures and job losses, said Julien Lafortune, a research fellow who has studied unemployment during the pandemic for the Public Policy Institute of California. The state’s jobless rate dipped back into single digits in October at 9.3%, down from a high of over 16% in April, but many businesses are confronting months of accumulated losses just as the virus explodes. 

“We can keep businesses open right now,” Lafortune said, “but a lot of people wouldn’t go out.” 

The new stay-at-home order is softer than what Newsom announced in the spring. On March 19, California came to a standstill after Newsom declared the country’s first statewide shelter-in-place order. All schools closed their doors and resorted to Zoom lectures; restaurants and bars ceased operations, leaving many workers in limbo; and those who could, began their working-from-home odyssey.

On Thursday, businesses and officials across the state raced to understand what the new rules would entail — including some of those charged with enforcing them.

“I don’t know what the rules are,” said Monterey County Chief Deputy Sheriff John Thornburg. “I’ve literally been sitting here for the last half-hour trying to figure out what they are, so I don’t know.”

Health experts and officials do know more about the virus and how it is transmitted than they did in the spring, so restrictions can be better customized, said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Rutherford is optimistic that the majority of Californians will adhere to the new rules. That, combined with the first tranche of vaccines, could give California a much-needed break, he said.

“We’ve turned the curve before,” Rutherford said. “It wasn’t magic, it was people paying attention.”

The new shutdown procedures come at a precarious moment for the California economy. Home prices and Wall Street have surged to record highs, but stubbornly high unemployment has fueled what economists at UCLA call “an unequal economic recovery.” Though vaccine optimism has boosted financial markets in recent weeks, those gains could recede this winter as the virus surges, UCLA Senior Economist Leo Feler cautioned in a forecast released this week. Small businesses are in a particularly vulnerable position.

“Today is the slowest day we’ve had since June,” Sheree Hardy, owner of the Trencher sandwich shop in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, said on Thursday. “The vibe out there right now, it’s an uneasy vibe.”

For many caught up in job cuts — which have disproportionately hit Black and Latino Californians, as well as women pushed out of the workforce to care for children — the next few weeks were already going to be stressful. Some 750,000 state residents will lose federal unemployment benefits on Dec. 26 if current deadlines hold, and 2.1 million Californians could lose their rental homes when eviction moratoriums lift weeks later. 

“The pandemic has been an inequality bomb,” said Micah Weinberg, CEO and president of progressive advocacy group California Forward. “What people want to see is a plan for an equitable economic recovery that is as serious, as well thought out and as well-funded as the plan to shut everything down.”

Another stay-at-home order could help alleviate pressure on the frontlines, said Stephanie Roberson, government relations director with the California Nurses Association. 

“I think now is the time,” Roberson said. “We can try to piecemeal this out, but it’s so widespread we need to take a statewide approach.”

Even before Newsom’s announcement, experts were betting a lockdown order in December would look different than what the state saw in March.


Exactly how the new regulations play out for businesses will likely come down to legal battles already underway. Earlier this week, a judge ordered Los Angeles County officials to provide more health evidence for shutting down outdoor dining in addition to indoor restaurants and retail. The lawsuit was backed by the California Restaurant Association, one of several business groups demanding more specifics about how regulators are evaluating public safety and calibrating restrictions.

At the same time, the state has attempted to respond to ongoing concerns about a lack of enforcement for worker safety protocols by issuing new emergency rules for employers. The standards by the Department of Industrial Relations, which went into effect earlier this week, call for site-specific health plans, reporting instances of multiple infections to public health officials and providing masks to all workers. Santa Clara County has also added new quarantine requirements for businesses that ask workers to travel long distances.

Some business owners in service industries hit hardest by the pandemic expressed frustration with shifting rules while trying to adapt to an unpredictable situation. Mike Duvall, founder and president of The Spirit Guild, which makes vodka and gin from California clementines in downtown L.A, said shuttering his sector entirely would be “a betrayal” of the work distilleries have done to produce hand sanitizer during the pandemic.  

“If they were to shut us down, you know, I would like to see them try,” Duvall said. “What are they going to do, come bolt up our place while we’re making sanitizer?”

In the meantime, the stalemate drags on over whether Californians will see another major round of individual stimulus checks or business loans. The state announced new tax extensions and $500 million in small business grants this week, and Newsom said Thursday that, “We are just getting started in terms of the business relief and business support.” Congress remains divided over offering more federal aid before the end of the year, setting the stage for a battle over how to redirect limited funds to struggling businesses, workers and others.

Newsom, meanwhile, said the state is focused on stemming the tide of the virus with mass vaccinations just on the horizon. “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Reporters Rachel Becker, Jackie Botts, Nigel Duara and Byrhonda Lyons contributed to this story.

CalMatters COVID-19 coverage, translation and distribution is supported by generous grants from the Penner Family Foundation, Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation.

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Ana is a Sacramento-based health reporter. She joined CalMatters in 2020 after four years at Kaiser Health News, where she covered California health care and policy. She started her reporting career at...

Lauren covers the California economy for CalMatters. Her past stories have been published by the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Guardian and others. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Protocol...