LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Even as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to mount, Los Angeles County loosened its health restrictions today and allowed select retail businesses to reopen with curbside service, while warning that the pandemic is far from over.
“As we begin this journey of recovery, some of us will be going back to work, some of us will just be out and around more people. But that doesn't mean that we're now living in a post-COVID-19 world,” Barbara Ferrer, director of the county Department of Public Health, said Thursday. “As we're around one another more, it's a good idea to act as if anyone could be infected with COVID- 19 and you too could be infected at any point in time.
“... The virus has not changed. It can still spread easily and it can still result in serious illness and death,” she said.
But with the county's hospitalization rate remaining generally flat, an indication the area has avoided a feared surge in cases that might have overwhelmed medical facilities, health officials said they were prepared to loosen the Safer At Home order that was issued in March to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections.
The move was made in conjunction with the state, which issued guidelines Thursday that generally mirror those announced by the county, allowing select “low-risk” businesses to reopen, but without in-store shopping.
Florists, toy stores, book stores, clothing retailers, sporting-goods stores and music shops were allowed to reopen, but only with curbside pickup service. Car dealers were also allowed to reopen, but with strict social- distancing and infection-control measures in showrooms.
The county will reopen its expansive hiking trail system on Saturday, with the exception of the popular Runyon Canyon trails, and visitors will be required to wear face coverings and maintain six feet of space from each other. Large groups will also be prohibited. Golf courses will reopen Saturday, also with restrictions on groups and activities.
Los Angeles County beaches, however, remain closed. Ferrer said this week that a plan for reopening the coastline was being finalized, but no timeline was given. Redondo Beach officials issued a statement saying they anticipated an order from the county allowing beaches to reopen for active uses no later than next Friday.
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said Friday that while the beaches themselves remain closed, the city will reopen its beach and bike paths on Monday for active recreation, although social distancing mandates will remain in place.
But even as the health orders are eased back, authorities continued to warn that people who leave their homes must continue wearing face coverings when they mingle with other members of the public, and must maintain a six-foot distance between themselves and others.
Ferrer also said people who know they've been exposed to someone with the illness must quarantine themselves for 14 days, which is recognized as the incubation period for the virus.
“As we reopen, it's likely, because more people are about, that there could be more spread of the infection,” she said. “But we may not see information to tell us if this is happening for a few weeks. So we are gonna need to spend some time gathering information every day over many weeks to see what the impact is of having more and more people out and about in our community.”
To drive the point home, Ferrer said that if just 1 million county residents -- 10% of the population -- who have been largely staying at home suddenly start circulating, as many as 50,000 of them likely are or will become infected, based on antibody testing that showed roughly 5% of the population is impacted by the virus.
If just 5% of those people who get infected become seriously ill, that means 2,500 people will need to be hospitalized, in a county hospital system that on average has only about 2,000 available beds daily.
“These numbers demonstrate that there is a lot at stake as we relax Safer at Home, and that reopening our county, even slowly, only works if we're all really committed to being careful,” she said.
She called the reopening effort a “balancing act,” but warned that closure-orders could be imposed again if there is a dramatic spike in deaths.
“If we don't do this well, if we can't really adhere to the guidance, if it's too hard to keep our distance when we're out and about, if it's too hard to keep on the cloth face coverings that can offer some protection to each other, we will see that spike that we don't want to see and we'll need to revert to more restrictions,” she said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom echoed those comments Thursday, noting that 92 virus deaths were reported in California between Wednesday and Thursday.
“I'll remind people that think, `Hey, the emergency's over, we can go back to the way things used to be' -- I've heard some comments from people that are even in elected office saying that -- tell that to 92 families that were destroyed because they lost a loved one to this virus in the last 24 hours,” Newsom said. “This by no stretch of the imagination is over. We want to contain this spread. We are making real progress in this state because you all practiced physical distancing, you abided broadly by the stay at home order, but we are not out of the woods.”
A total of 51 new deaths due to the coronavirus were reported in Los Angeles County on Thursday, raising the total to 1,420.
Ferrer also announced 815 new cases of the virus in the county, raising the total to 29,427. Pasadena later added 15 more cases, while Long Beach reported 84 more cases, lifting the countywide total to 29,526. Pasadena and Long Beach both have their own health departments separate from the county's.
Of the people who have died, 92% had underlying health conditions. For the fatalities in which ethnic data was available, 38% were Latinx, 28% white, 18% Asian, 12% black and 1% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
More than half of the county's deaths, 51%, were residents of institutional settings in the county, the vast majority of them in skilled nursing facilities. Institutional settings -- including congregate living facilities, nursing homes, jails, prisons and shelters -- have accounted for 718 of the county's deaths, and 7,048 of the county's overall number of cases, Ferrer said.
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