With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increasing, Orange County and most of California will fall under a state-mandated soft curfew Saturday night that will bar non-essential activities, gatherings and business operations starting at 10 p.m. nightly.
But whether local authorities will do anything to enforce the order remains unclear.
The “limited Stay At Home” order announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office Thursday applies to all counties in the restrictive “purple” tier of the state’s coronavirus monitoring system –including Orange County. The order will take effect at 10 p.m. Saturday and remain in force until 5 a.m. Dec. 21.
“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” Newsom said in a statement. “We are sounding the alarm. It is crucial that we act to decrease transmission and slow hospitalizations before the death count surges. We’ve done it before and we must do it again.”
According to the governor’s office, the order is aimed at reducing opportunities for spread of the virus, noting that activities conducted overnight “are often non-essential and more likely related to social activities and gatherings that have a higher likelihood of leading to reduced inhibition and reduced likelihood for adherence to safety measures like wearing a face covering and maintaining physical distance.”
The order isn’t being described as a full-on curfew. State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Thursday it doesn’t completely prevent people from leaving their homes after-hours, noting he still plans to walk his dog late at night.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said, however, his agency plans to remain focused on “emergency calls,” not enforcing health orders.
“Throughout the pandemic, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has taken an education-first approach with regard to the public health orders,” Barnes said. “We are currently assessing the action by the governor. At this time, due to the need to have deputies available for emergency calls for service, deputies will not be responding to requests for face-coverings or social gatherings-only enforcement.”
Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, who was just elected to Congress, blasted the order and Newsom.
“Governor `do as I say, not as I do’ Newsom’s curfew on 90% of CA’s population in 41 counties is an unenforceable abuse of power,” Steel wrote on her Twitter page. “It’s a wrong way to make up for his `bad mistake’ of wining and dining — maskless & inside — at an exclusive restaurant, violating his own order.”
Steel was referring to a much-publicized gaffe by Newsom, who attended an adviser’s sizable birthday dinner at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa despite his own orders against large gatherings. Newsom publicly apologized on Monday, calling his attendance a bad mistake. But criticism has continued to mount, particularly after photos of the gathering were broadcast by Fox11 in Los Angeles, showing the governor in relatively close quarters with other party attendees.
Orange County was moved into the state’s restrictive “purple” tier on Monday, along with 27 other counties, amid a statewide surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. The move left 41 of the state’s 58 counties — 94.1% of the state’s population — in the “purple” tier.
The move into the restrictive tier forced the banning of indoor service at restaurants and closure of movie theaters, while also prohibiting indoor operations at gyms and fitness centers.
Coronavirus cases have been surging statewide. Orange County on Thursday reported 582 new diagnoses of coronavirus, raising the cumulative case count to 67,167. The county also announced nine more COVID-19 fatalities, hiking the death toll to 1,537 as hospitalizations continue to climb.
One of the fatalities was a skilled nursing facility resident and another was an assisted living facility resident.
Last week, the county reported 18 deaths, compared with 24 the week before. Since Sunday, the county has reported 13 deaths.
The number of county residents hospitalized with the virus rose from 291 Wednesday to 304 Thursday, with the number in the intensive care unit dropping from 90 to 83, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
The change in the three-day average of hospitalized patients went from 13.5% to 17.8%. The county has 29% of its intensive care unit beds and 65% of its ventilators available, and county officials are confident local hospitals can handle the surge.
“I think it’s important to take a look at the positive COVID-19 cases in the county, but also as a percentage of those cases, how many of those are individuals who get hospitalized and also keep track of our hospital bed capacity,” County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said.
Bartlett, who is also president of the California State Association of Counties, said state officials are concerned about having enough medical staff to cover its hospital beds, but local medical center executives say they are prepared for the surge.
“Right now we still have significant bed staffing in Orange County,” Bartlett said. “But we need to keep track as COVID cases rise and how many get hospitalized. We want to sure our health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed.”
Hospital officials must not only keep track of coronavirus hospitalizations, but for other patients as well, Bartlett said.
The state has a “mutual aid” policy regarding medical staffing of hospitals, so if there is a surge regionally outside the county, Orange County’s medical professionals would be assigned where there is the greatest need.
The county’s intensive care units have not seen a sharp rise in patients, which could be owed to “better therapeutics” as doctors get more efficient at treating the virus, Bartlett said.
The biggest source of transmission of coronavirus was attributed to friends and families getting together.
“I think it’s small to medium private gatherings, where people are in close proximity without face coverings,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett and some other Orange County leaders have argued that the tighter restrictions on businesses as the county has been placed back into the most restrictive, purple, tier of the state’s four-tier regulatory system amount to “punishing” businesses when they aren’t as much a vector for the disease.
“We can only shut down so much,” she said. “That’s why with the private gatherings we have to figure out how to target those.”
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said it is also likely that the Nov. 3 election contributed to the rise as well.
“Any time you have a public gathering that could include social or election-related or community protests — we’re not saying you can’t do those things — but we’re saying they’re absolutely one of the areas of greater risk because you’re interacting with people outside of your normal cohorts and you don’t know what parts of the community these people are coming from, so now you have a mixture of people who may or may not be from the same county. It’s an unstable cohort and that is added risk.”
The county is rolling out a program to distribute no-cost home test kits for residents to help encourage quarantining and social distancing.
This most recent surge in Orange County is still dwarfed by the rise in cases in July, when daily case rates reached 1,000 some days. Hospitalization rates soared as high as 700 on some days during the July surge. But Bartlett cautioned that deaths are often a lagging indicator and as hospitalizations increase, so could fatalities.
The number of tests conducted is 1,300,097, which includes 21,263 received Thursday.