A crowd of people sits in a movie theater.
An example of a movie theater. Photo via Pixabay

Los Angeles County restaurants will again welcome customers indoors and movie theaters and fitness centers will be able to reopen, all at limited capacity, beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday when the county advances to a less-restrictive tier in the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”

County officials confirmed the move Friday, when the state met the threshold of administering 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in low-income communities across California that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

When it met that threshold, the state eased the requirements for counties to advance through the four tiers of the blueprint, which governs business restrictions based on the spread of COVID-19. The new requirements allow Los Angeles County — as well as neighboring Orange County — to move out of the most restrictive “purple” tier and into the “red” tier.

Under “red” tier guidelines announced by the Los Angeles County Thursday, indoor dining can resume at 25% of capacity. The county will require restaurants to have 8 feet of distance between all tables, which will be restricted to a maximum of six people from the same household. The rules also call for ventilation to be increased “to the maximum extent possible.”

Restaurant servers are already required to wear a face mask and a face shield. With the new rules, the Department of Public Health “strongly recommends” that employees upgrade their face coverings, through the use of higher-grade N95 or KN95 masks, or a combination of double-masking and a face shield.

Health officials also strongly recommend — but do not require — that all employees be informed about and offered the chance to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Food service workers are already eligible to receive the shots.

Rules for other businesses that will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday largely align with state guidance for the “red” tier:

— museums, zoos and aquariums can open indoors at 25% of capacity;

— gyms and fitness centers can open indoors at 10% capacity, with required masking;

— movie theaters can open at 25% capacity with reserved seating to provide at least six feet of distance between patrons;

— retail and personal care businesses can increase indoor capacity to 50%;

— indoor shopping malls can reopen at 50%, with common areas remaining closed, but food courts can open at 25% capacity and in adherence with the other requirements for indoor restaurants.

Moving to the “red” tier will also allow the reopening of theme parks as early as April 1 — including Disneyland in Orange County and Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles County — at 15% of capacity, with in-state visitors only.

The rules also permit resumption of activities at institutes of higher education, and reopening of in-person instruction for students in grades 7- 12. Private indoor gatherings are also permitted for people from up to three different households, with masking and physical distancing. People who are vaccinated can gather in small groups indoors without masking or distancing.

“This is welcome news, especially as many of our small businesses have borne the brunt of the financial fallout from this pandemic, and as our students struggle to keep up with distance learning,” county Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis said. “We have achieved this milestone and moved down to the `red’ tier because as a county we worked hard, looked out for one another and came together to defeat the dark winter surge.

“Although we are taking steps to re-open some of the hardest hit sectors of our economy, that in no way means we can drop our guard now,” she said. “We owe it to our neighbors, our local businesses, and our children to remain vigilant so that the re-openings are safe and long-lasting — wearing masks and physical distancing remain critical.”

The cities of Long Beach and Pasadena, which both have their own health departments separate from the county, also announced they will shift to the “red” tier and enact new loosened rules — largely mirroring the county — at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Long Beach officials said that city will also align with new guidelines the state announced Thursday allowing wineries and breweries that do not serve food to reopen outdoors for alcohol service. The rule requires all customers to have an advance reservation and be seated at tables, all of which will have a 90-minute time limit per customer.

There was no immediate word in Los Angeles County plans to also adopt the new guidelines on non-food-serving breweries and wineries. Counties are permitted to impose tougher restrictions than the state.

The move to the “red” tier comes thanks to an adjustment announced last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who set the goal of administering 2 million vaccine doses in hard-hit communities to ensure equity in vaccine distribution. Newsom earmarked 40% of the state’s vaccine supply to those communities in an effort to further that goal.

When the milestone was met, counties were cleared to move out of the most restrictive “purple” tier of the blueprint when their average rate of daily new COVID-19 infections reaches 10 per 100,000 residents — a looser standard than the previous 7 per 100,000 residents.

Under the new guidelines, Los Angeles and Orange counties both immediately qualified to move to the less-restrictive “red” tier, since they have both been under the 10 per 100,000 standard for two weeks. Los Angeles County’s new case rate is currently 5.2 per 100,000 residents, while Orange County’s is 6 per 100,000.

In addition to Los Angeles and Orange counties, 11 other counties across the state were also cleared to move into the “red” tier thanks to the state reaching the vaccination milestone. Barring any reversal in case numbers, 13 more counties will move into the “red” tier when the state does its weekly update on Tuesday, including San Diego and Riverside counties, meaning the entirety of Southern California will be in “red” by the middle of next week.

Newsom’s new guidelines will adjust the requirements again when the state reaches 4 million vaccinations in hard-hit communities. It was unclear how long that effort will take, but based on the current pace of vaccinations, it will likely take at least a month.

When the 4 million mark is reached, Los Angeles and Orange counties could — barring a resurgence of cases — quickly advance to the even less- restrictive “orange” tier of the economic-reopening blueprint. Such a move would lead to even further loosening of capacity restrictions and a reopening of bars with outdoor service only.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned the county Board of Supervisors this week that while case numbers and the testing- positivity rate in the county have declined precipitously in recent weeks, things could easily worsen if residents become lax about infection-control measures.

That sentiment was echoed Friday by County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis, who urged residents to continue exercising caution, warning, “Just because certain activities are allowed and current reopening protocols are revised, it does not mean those activities are safe and without risk.”

“These reopenings are the result of a great deal of hard work and sacrifice by businesses and individuals alike,” he said. “Thank you to everyone who has had to endure sacrifices and who have made preventing COVID-19 part of their day-to-day life. As certain activities are allowed to resume, we urge all residents to proceed with caution. COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations and deaths continue to fall, but still remain very high.”

On Thursday, the county reported another 101 COVID-19 deaths, although three of those fatalities were actually announced Wednesday by health officials in Long Beach. The new deaths lifted the countywide death toll from throughout the pandemic to 22,304.

Another 1,378 cases were announced by the county. The new cases raised the cumulative pandemic total to 1,208,024.

According to state figures, there were 979 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Friday, with 285 people in intensive care. It marked the first since the winter case surge began that the hospitalization number has been below 1,000.

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