This week, California officials announced that they were lifting serious coronavirus restrictions across much of the state citing optimistic projections for February. Given that case numbers are still high, hospital capacities are lowering but not low, vaccine rollout has been slow, and a new virus mutation has been documented in the state, many California residents — and non-California residents — are confused as to why officials are pushing to move ahead with reopening now.
This decision, effective immediately, ends regional stay-at-home orders, including prohibiting gathers of any size, as well as orders for residents to stay home except for essential work. Now, restaurants are allowed to reopen for outdoor dining, and hair salons and personal care businesses can resume operations in a limited capacity, and retailers are allowed more shoppers inside at once.
Shortly after public health officials made the announcement, California Governor Gavin Newsom defended the decision citing projections that intensive care units will see a significant drop in cases in the next month.
“Today, we can lay claim to starting to see some real light at the end of the tunnel as it relates to case numbers,” said Newsom during a news conference on Monday. “Each region’s a little bit different, but we are in a position projecting four weeks forward with a significant decline in the case rates, positivity rates. We are anticipating...still more decline in hospitalizations and more declines in ICU, and that’s why we’re lifting that stay at home effective immediately today.”
Counties across much of the state will now return to a tiered system relying on area-specific virus data. Based on positive tests per 100,000 residents, each county will be assigned a risk level ranging from “Minimal” to “Widespread.” Currently, all but three counties – which equates to 99.9 percent of the population – are designated as Widespread, meaning the test positivity rate is above eight percent. As of today, the statewide positivity rate is just over 15 percent, according to California’s COVID-19 dashboard.
This is a return to a more similar model to what Newsom implemented during the first statewide shut down in March last year when reopening plans were based on benchmarks largely tied to per capita infection rates. After cases surged following Thanksgiving, Newsom opted for a measuring five general regions based on ICU capacity to determine stay-at-home orders. It’s been that way for nearly two months now.
Newsom has repeatedly reassured residents that all reopening measures would be accompanied by transparent data; however, The Associated Press reported that Newsom’s administration has not disclosed key figures. Just last week, it appeared that none of the five regions were likely to have stay-at-home orders lifted in the near future because their respective ICU capacities were well below 15 percent. Within a day, the state announced the new plan. Local officials and businesses were caught off guard, The Los Angeles Times reports. The only reasoning, at least publicly, appears to be based upon the projected ICU capacity for the end of February.
According to the state projections offered by the Newsom administration, by February 21, ICU capacity is projected to reach 30.3 percent across California which breaks down into 33.3 percent in Southern California, 22.3 percent in central San Joaquin Valley, and 25 percent in the Bay Area.
While its true that California’s case numbers have been declining, experts worry that new variants of the virus, one of which has been found in more than half of test samples in the Los Angeles area, could threaten newly-gained progress. Hospitals in Southern California are still overwhelmed with only seven percent available capacity and the Sacramento region still only has 11.9 percent available ICU capacity. The statewide average availability is around 10 percent — a far cry from its four-week projected total.
Newsom has been accused of making pandemic response decisions based on political considerations, allegations he calls “complete, utter nonsense.” Fueled by frustration as thousands of businesses close permanently, schools remain closed, and residents grow weary of stay-at-home orders, some Californians are demanding Newsom be recalled from office. Proponents of the recall have gathered 1.2 million of the necessary 1.5 million signatures they need by March 17 to get a recall on the ballot, reports The Wall Street Journal.
As the new tiered system is effective immediately, time will tell if the Newsom administration’s projections were accurate or a move spurred on by optimism and pressure.