The state loosened coronavirus restrictions Tuesday on Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, clearing the way for more businesses to reopen and, if infection rates remain stable, even schools in the next few weeks.
The state moved the two counties — along with Amador, Orange and Placer counties — from the most-restrictive purple tier to the red tier in its COVID-19 path to reopening, meaning the counties have met benchmarks for new cases and positive testing rates.
In the red tier, counties can allow more businesses, like gyms, to begin to operate indoors and businesses that were already allowed to serve customers indoors, such as retail, can increase the number of customers they serve at once.
Santa Clara said it would allow personal care services like massages, manicures and facials to begin indoors with modifications, along with museums, zoos, aquariums, gyms and fitness centers. It said shopping malls would be allowed to increase capacity from 25% to 50%.
Santa Cruz will also allow restaurants, places of worship and even movie theaters to resume indoor operations at limited capacity and with requirements like mask wearing and social distancing. Santa Clara is still holding off on that.
Counties can implement stricter rules than the state. For instance, San Francisco, in the red tier, has not permitted indoor salon operations — as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi discovered last week after being caught on camera getting her hair done inside a shuttered salon — despite the fact that the state’s tier system permits them.
“Although moving to the Red Tier is a step in the right direction, the community should be aware that another surge in COVID-19 cases is anticipated,” Santa Cruz County Public Information Officer Corinne Hyland said in a statement. “Evacuations due to the CZU Lightning Complex Fires resulted in many people mixing with others from outside their household.”
The state credited Santa Clara County for its widespread testing: The county is now conducting between 7,000-8,000 coronavirus tests per day.
“If we hadn’t had these numbers in testing, we wouldn’t have been able to move from purple to red and we would still be in a much more restrictive situation,” said Marty Fenstersheib, the head of the county’s testing task force. “So I would encourage people to get tested if you have symptoms, if you’re in contact with a case and all of the people who are on the front line.”
“As long as we can maintain our levels of testing, we’ll be able to adjust our case rates and stay in the less restrictive tiers and eventually hopefully we’ll move into even less restrictive tiers,” Fenstersheib added.
If counties stay in the red tier for two weeks, they will be allowed to reopen K-12 schools. Right now, only elementary schools with a waiver can reopen.
The shift comes as the state makes some gains in the fight against the deadly disease. Hospitalization rates declined 24% over the last two weeks, with coronavirus patients now taking up just 4% of beds across the state. And the number of people requiring intensive care has dropped 21%, with coronavirus patients making up 13% of all ICU patients. The two-week COVID-19 testing positivity rate has also dropped to 4.3%, with the seven-day average falling to 3.8%.
“We are very cautious in terms of our approach as we move forward,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said Tuesday during a news conference with Gov. Gavin Newsom. “This concept of slow and stringent is really important for California.”
Now, 33 of the state’s 58 counties — including most Bay Area counties — sit in the purple tier, where there is widespread coronavirus transmission, while 14 are in the red tier, with substantial transmission. Nine counties are in the orange tier, where the spread is moderate, and two counties are in the yellow tier, where there is minimal spread of the disease.
“Next week, we may see some movement,” Ghaly said.
Once counties have moved from one tier to the next, they must remain there for three weeks and show at least two consecutive weeks of stable conditions before they are allowed to move to the next tier.
Newsom said the state anticipates moving up to seven counties next week, but did not specify which ones.
“We are very cautious in terms of our approach as we move forward,” he said.
And he cautioned that the state has just emerged from a three-day holiday weekend, which historically “have not been advantageous.” The state saw a spike in coronavirus cases after the July 4 weekend, with health officials pointing to family gatherings as a cause.
Asked about a large religious concert and rally that drew thousands to the Capitol in Sacramento this past weekend, Newsom said he was still gathering more information. But he cautioned against large gatherings — particularly those without masks and social distancing.
“Quite literally someone could lose their lives,” he said. And while that may not be the intent, he added, “it may be the outcome.”