LA County, Long Beach meet state threshold to open more businesses next week—but will they?

Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 case numbers continued dropping today, officially meeting the criteria to escape the most restrictive tier of the state’s economic-reopening blueprint, which could happen by the weekend and authorize the county to reopen more businesses.

But with the county’s public health director continuing to warn of a potential new surge in COVID cases, it remained unclear if the county will immediately allow the reopening of all businesses included in the “red” tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy—particularly indoor restaurant dining.

“We will run the risk of delaying the pandemic if we don’t continue to reduce transmission while our vaccination numbers pick up,” Barbara Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “This is especially true during this time of the year when students are on spring break and we prepare to celebrate spring holidays.”

Long Beach is counted with LA County in terms of the state’s tiered reopening metrics, but the city has its own health department and can determine whether it wants to be more strict than the state allows. Officials with the city did not respond to questions Tuesday morning.

The county is currently in the most restrictive “purple” tier of the state’s blueprint governing economic activities during the pandemic. But on Tuesday, the county’s state-adjusted rate of daily new COVID-19 cases fell to 5.2 per 100,000 residents, qualifying the county to move up to the less-restrictive red tier.

Under previous state guidelines, the county would need to maintain the low level of new cases for two weeks before actually advancing to the red tier. However, under a change announced last week, the county can advance to the red tier once the state administers its 2 millionth dose of COVID vaccine in the hardest-hit, lowest-income communities in California.

As of Monday, the state had administered 1,897,280 doses in those communities, meaning the threshold of 2 million could be reached at any time. Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors the county could be in the red tier by this weekend.

Under state guidelines, moving from the restrictive purple tier into the red tier will authorize the county to increase capacity to 50% at retail establishments while reopening indoor dining and movie theaters at 25% capacity and fitness centers at 10%. However, the county, and the city of Long Beach, is not bound by the state guidelines and could continue to impose stricter rules.

Ferrer has hinted the county may not immediately authorize all of the business reopenings, most notably indoor dining. On Monday, she cited a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found on-premises restaurant dining contributes to increases in COVID cases and deaths. Ferrer also cited the study in her presentation to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

Some board members said, however, they want the county to adhere to the state’s guidelines for business reopenings, and not impose additional restrictions.

“I feel pretty strongly that I think we should align ourselves with the state’s red tier reopening guidelines,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said. “… I think to be different than that right now would cause confusion and probably a lot of anger, because there are so many venues out there, entities, that have really suffered and are waiting to get a few more of these restrictions lifted.

“Especially if we’re talking about Disneyland reopening at limited capacity, opening day at Dodger Stadium there’ll be in-person fans,” she said. “… But I really hope that we can stay in alignment so that there is not confusion from one county to the other.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger agreed with Hahn, saying L.A. County should align its public health order with the state and neighboring counties.

“I believe that clarity and consistency leads to the highest rates of compliance,” Barger said, adding that she wanted to avoid local residents traveling to other counties with lesser restrictions.

Barger also urged Ferrer to get guidance out quickly so businesses can plan ahead to prepare for changing rules.

Ferrer warned the board that while case numbers and the testing-positivity rate have declined precipitously in recent weeks, things could easily worsen if residents become lax about infection-control measures.

“This is the month I would say—the month of March, the early part of April—where we have to be extraordinarily cautious,” she said. “Because we’ve been here before. We’ve been here with reopenings. We’ve been here with travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’ve seen what happens around holidays if we’re not really careful. … We’ve got to keep everybody alive right now so they can get vaccinated and stay alive. So this would be a time for extreme caution.”

She pointed specifically to the spread of variants of virus that causes COVID-19, which can spread more easily from person to person. Ferrer said the variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been increasing its reach in Los Angeles County, and is now believed to be responsible for 10% of all COVID cases in the county.

“Increasingly there’s also been concern of a worldwide fourth wave of COVID-19 as cases started to rise in the last week of February, following six weeks of decline, particularly in Europe,” she said.

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