Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 case numbers continue to drop, officially meeting the criteria to escape the most restrictive tier of the state’s economic-reopening blueprint, which could happen by the weekend and authorize the county to reopen more businesses.
But with the county’s public health director continuing to warn of a potential new surge in COVID cases, it remained unclear if the county will immediately allow the reopening of all businesses included in the “red” tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy — particularly indoor restaurant dining.
“We will run the risk of delaying the pandemic if we don’t continue to reduce transmission while our vaccination numbers pick up,” Barbara Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “This is especially true during this time of the year when students are on spring break and we prepare to celebrate spring holidays.”
The county is currently in the most restrictive “purple” tier of the state’s blueprint governing economic activities during the pandemic. But on Tuesday, the county’s state-adjusted rate of daily new COVID-19 cases fell to 5.2 per 100,000 residents, qualifying the county to move up to the less-restrictive “red” tier.
Under previous state guidelines, the county would need to maintain the low level of new cases for two weeks before actually advancing to the “red” tier. However, under a change announced last week, the county can advance to the “red” tier once the state administers its 2 millionth dose of COVID vaccine in the hardest-hit, lowest-income communities in California.
As of Monday, the state had administered 1,897,280 doses in those communities, meaning the threshold of 2 million could be reached at any time. Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors the county could be in the “red” tier by this weekend.
Under state guidelines, moving from the restrictive “purple” tier into the “red” tier will authorize the county to increase capacity to 50% at retail establishments while reopening indoor dining and movie theaters at 25% capacity and fitness centers at 10%. However, the county is not bound by the state guidelines and could continue to impose stricter rules.
Ferrer has hinted the county may not immediately authorize all of the business reopenings, most notably indoor dining. On Monday, she cited a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found on-premises restaurant dining contributes to increases in COVID cases and deaths. Ferrer also cited the study in her presentation to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
Some board members said, however, they want the county to adhere to the state’s guidelines for business reopenings, and not impose additional restrictions.
“I feel pretty strongly that I think we should align ourselves with the state’s red tier reopening guidelines,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said. “… I think to be different than that right now would cause confusion and probably a lot of anger, because there are so many venues out there, entities, that have really suffered and are waiting to get a few more of these restrictions lifted.
“Especially if we’re talking about Disneyland reopening at limited capacity, opening day at Dodger Stadium there’ll be in-person fans,” she said. “… But I really hope that we can stay in alignment so that there is not confusion from one county to the other.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger agreed with Hahn, saying L.A. County should align its public health order with the state and neighboring counties.
“I believe that clarity and consistency leads to the highest rates of compliance,” Barger said, adding that she wanted to avoid local residents traveling to other counties with lesser restrictions.
Barger also urged Ferrer to get guidance out quickly so businesses can plan ahead to prepare for changing rules.
Ferrer warned the board that while case numbers and the testing-positivity rate have declined precipitously in recent weeks, things could easily worsen if residents become lax about infection-control measures.
“This is the month I would say — the month of March, the early part of April — where we have to be extraordinarily cautious,” she said. “Because we’ve been here before. We’ve been here with reopenings. We’ve been here with travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’ve seen what happens around holidays if we’re not really careful. … We’ve got to keep everybody alive right now so they can get vaccinated and stay alive. So this would be a time for extreme caution.”
She pointed specifically to the spread of variants of virus that causes COVID-19, which can spread more easily from person to person. Ferrer said the variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been increasing its reach in Los Angeles County, and is now believed to be responsible for 10% of all COVID cases in the county.
“Increasingly there’s also been concern of a worldwide fourth wave of COVID-19 as cases started to rise in the last week of February, following six weeks of decline, particularly in Europe,” she said.
Ferrer also noted that while the county received its largest allocation to date of COVID-19 vaccine this week, at more than 300,000 doses, that number is expected to drop off because the county will not be receiving any doses of the new single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the next two weeks, due to a “manufacturing and production issue.”
“Essentially, Johnson & Johnson gave out everything they had right away and now we’re going to be waiting a little bit until they have more to distribute,” she said.
The drop in vaccine supply will coincide with next Monday’s expansion of vaccine eligibility to people aged 16 and older with an underlying health condition that puts them at risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.
“If we’re adding 1 to 2 million people (who are eligible for shots) and we’re not adding a lot of doses, March is still going to be … a tight month,” she said.
She urged people to be patient in trying to make vaccination appointments, and she urged people with underlying health conditions to contact their doctor to see if they can arrange shots through their health provider.
On Tuesday, the county reported another 70 COVID-19 deaths, while Long Beach health officials announced another five fatalities, lifting the countywide death toll from throughout the pandemic to 22,104.
Another 1,337 cases were announced by the county, while Long Beach reported 46 and Pasadena added five, raising the cumulative pandemic total to 1,205,327.
According to state figures, there were 1,079 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Monday, with 320 people in intensive care.
As of Friday, 2,415,460 doses of COVID vaccine have been administered in the county. That includes 814,593 second doses, representing the number of people who have been fully vaccinated.