SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California has relaxed coronavirus restrictions in 40 of its 58 counties, including all but one in the San Francisco Bay Area where the illness first took hold in the state, even as signs emerge of a possible surge of new cases.
On Tuesday, state officials upgraded seven counties from its most restrictive rules, clearing the way for a return to indoor restaurant dining, worship services, gym workouts and movies in theaters — all with modifications to require face coverings and limit capacity to ensure physical distancing.
The state is moving more slowly than the reopening last spring that brought with it a dramatic spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. California leads the nation with 815,000 confirmed cases and its 5,730 deaths are the fourth-highest state total, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
In the last two months hospitalizations have fallen to their lowest level since early April and the statewide rate of new cases among those tested is a record-low 2.8% over the last two weeks.
But the state continues to move slowly on reopening. Disneyland and other amusement parks have urged the state to allow them to resume operations. The Walt Disney Co. announced Tuesday it is laying off 28,000 workers at its parks in California and Florida and blamed California's “unwillingness to lift restrictions ” as a reason for its troubles.
For weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials have said they were close to establishing rules.
“We’re working with those industries to put out something that’s thoughtful, allows us to maintain the rest of our framework in a strong way, and really following those principles of slow and stringent to ensure those large activities are done responsibly,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California's top public health official, said at his weekly briefing that ended just as Disney made its announcement.
The state’s more conservative approach to reopening was unveiled last month and is based on the percentage of positive tests and per capita new cases in each of the counties. The four tiers for reopening include ranges for those categories and a county must meet both for two consecutive weeks before advancing to a less-restrictive tier.
Local officials can choose to restrict activities even if the state allows them. San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced Tuesday the city will allow indoor dining and worship services for the first time since March. The city has met the state's criteria for weeks, but its leaders have only recently begun relaxing local rules.
San Francisco is the largest county to move ahead two tiers in the reopening process. All but one — Sonoma — of the nine counties in the San Francisco Bay area have now met state standards to leave the most restrictive level.
The state also lifted its most restrictive rules in Butte, Contra Costa, Fresno, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara and Yolo counties. Los Angeles County narrowly missed its chance to reopen more businesses, a setback for its 10 million residents.
Ghaly renewed his warning that a potential new surge of cases, driven partly by infections from the Labor Day holiday weekend that are only emerging now, could increase coronavirus-related hospitalizations by 89% in the next month.
He expressed faith in the state's “slow and stringent” system of reopening, saying it takes into account those trends.
“As we sound a bit of the early alarm it's really a reminder to be able to do more to reduce transmissions in our communities,” Ghaly 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. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
The state issued guidelines late Monday for public playgrounds to reopen across the state. But the rules are strict, requiring everyone 2 and older to wear facemasks and mandating parents keep their children at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from others.
Officially, playgrounds have been closed during the pandemic. But in many parts of the state children have been playing on them for months as local officials shunned enforcement.
John Pope, a spokesman for the Orange County city of Newport Beach, said the city posted signs early in the pandemic indicating playgrounds were closed and roped off the equipment with caution tape. But the tape got taken down, and over time the signs would get damaged, he said.
“It was hard to actively enforce it,” Pope said. “Our community has been asking for more definitive guidance on playgrounds.”
The rules for kids playing on playgrounds differ from the ones governing youth sports, where kids aren't required to wear masks and only are allowed to practice with their teammates. Ghaly said that's because at a public playground, kids interact with different people every day while in sports they are limited to the same “cohort."
“We do put together these guidelines in order to ensure that we reduce risk as much as possible,” Ghaly said.
Associated Press writer Amy Taxin contributed reporting from Orange County, California.