LOS ANGELES (CNS) - 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 today, 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 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.
Newsom's new guidelines will adjust the requirements again when the state reaches 4 million vaccinations in hard-hit communities. When that occurs, 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.
“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.
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 1,015 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Thursday, with 287 people in intensive care.
Photos: Getty Images
Copyright 2021, City News Service, Inc.