SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 1: Customers line up outside of Ross Dress for Less in Sunnyvale, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s warning that California will soon face “more dramatic” coronavirus restrictions in an effort to blunt an alarming surge of COVID-19 infections threatening to overwhelm hospitals is reviving memories of last spring’s frantic lockdowns.
But even as we enter what epidemiologists warn could be some of the darkest and deadliest days of the pandemic, there are few indications at this point that California is going to return to such a widespread, near-total halt of daily life.
Instead, book stores and barbers that shuttered in March could stay open this time around, albeit with much smaller capacities. Closures of parks and beaches seem unlikely to return, though travel limits may make those destinations less accessible. Outdoor restaurant dining stands some chance of making it through the winter. Those are some of the potential changes highlighted by epidemiologists, who cited new restrictions enacted by Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties as examples of what could be next for the state as a whole.
“We see the writing on the wall and we have to take these steps now,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco. Still, she said, “Nobody wants a full shut down.”
Newsom has not yet announced the new health orders that his office expects to roll out in the coming days. He said Monday that the restrictions would “fall in line” with the spring stay-at-home order, though with unspecified modifications. It isn’t clear how the order might affect schools.
With the effect of Thanksgiving gatherings and travel still unclear, data compiled by this news organization paints a dire picture of an accelerating pandemic in California. More than 9,000 people are being treated in hospitals for the virus, more than at any other point during the pandemic, and the seven-day average of new confirmed cases is also higher than ever, at 14,058 per day.
The vast majority of California’s nearly 40 million residents live in counties — including all but Marin in the Bay Area — that already have the tightest restrictions under the state’s tiered system for coronavirus limits because officials consider spread of the deadly illness in those regions to be “widespread.” State rules for those counties prohibit higher-risk activities, such as eating indoors at restaurants or exercising inside gyms, and require other businesses to limit their indoor capacities.
But as the winter wave of new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations grows, with Newsom warning Monday that California could run out of intensive care unit beds by the middle of this month, the state is exploring new limits above and beyond the ones it already considered its toughest.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to reporters in Sacramento on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. San Bernardino County supervisors have agreed to sue Newsom over the state’s coronavirus restrictions. (Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee via AP, Pool) Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee via AP
Last month, Newsom instituted what he called a “limited Stay at Home Order” barring gatherings and requiring non-essential businesses to close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. A future state order could expand that directive to all hours: The order Los Angeles County officials announced last Friday asks residents to “stay home as much as possible” and not gather with anyone from outside their household. The county also shut down outdoor dining, requiring restaurants to go back to the take-out only model from the spring, a step Santa Clara County has not taken.
Santa Clara County’s rules place strict limits on travel, telling those who have arrived from more than 150 miles away to isolate for 14 days and ordering that people can only stay in its hotels for essential trips.
Those could be some of the most important steps in limiting the spread of COVID-19 during the holidays. There is little appetite for governments to aggressively enforce those sorts of orders, however, leaving it up to a weary public to avoid the temptation to gather with friends and family after a grueling year. Bibbins-Domingo said she hopes encouraging news about new coronavirus vaccines, which are expected to start going out to health care workers later this month and to the broader pubic next year, helps overcome that fatigue.
“There is reason to be hopeful, and I hope that we can communicate that help is right around the corner,” Bibbins-Domingo said. “But we have to really fight through the next several months.”
Bibbins-Domingo and others said they expect new state rules to reflect the lessons public health officials have learned more than eight months after the initial lockdown orders. Among them: That contaminated surfaces don’t pose nearly as much risk as was once feared, outdoor activities are much safer than those indoors and masks are far more effective than many initially thought at limiting the spread, even when indoors.
Some of those lessons are showing up already. While non-essential retailers and personal service businesses such as hair salons were shut down in the spring, both Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties’ orders allow them to keep operating — at tightly limited capacities and requiring all shoppers to wear masks — through what is expected to be a crucial holiday season for many after a difficult year.
“They are trying to balance the economic damage to small businesses,” said Dr. Arthur Reingold, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, “with minimizing mortality, quite frankly.”
In Santa Clara County, where retailers are limited to 10 percent of their pre-pandemic capacity, that means Parvin Abdollahi can only allow one shopper at a time inside Penelope Boutique, her clothing store in the Santana Row shopping center. Sometimes other customers are willing to wait, Abdollahi said, but often “after 10 or 15 minutes they just give up.”
Still, Abdollahi said she’s finding ways to work within the limits, like having customers shop by appointment. And she appreciates being able to stay open at all.
“It’s going to be harder, but safety is more important,” Abdollahi said. “Nobody wants to get sick to buy clothes.”