LOS ANGELES (CNS) - On the one-year anniversary of the county's first public health order closing restaurants and banning public gatherings due to the then-burgeoning COVID-19 threat, Los Angeles County continued its progress in beating back the pandemic, with the daily rate of new infections sliding again.
According to figures released by the state Tuesday, the county's adjusted daily rate of new COVID-19 cases is 4.1 per 100,000 residents, down from 5.2 per 100,000 last week.
The county on Monday officially entered the red tier of state's four- level Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which governs business restrictions during the pandemic. County rankings in the blueprint are based on the rates of daily new cases and the rate of people testing positive for the virus. Los Angeles County's seven-day average of positive tests is now at 2%, according to the state.
The county entered the red tier -- which allowed the resumption of indoor dining and the reopening of movie theaters and indoor fitness centers, all at limited capacity -- thanks to the daily case rate averaging less than 10 per 100,000 residents for two weeks.
With the rate now falling to 4.1 per 100,000 residents, the county finds itself in striking distance of possibly advancing to the next tier, orange. To enter that tier, a county must have a daily case rate of 3.9 per 100,000 residents or better for two consecutive weeks.
Reaching the orange tier would allow the county to lift all capacity limits at retail stores and shopping malls, while raising the allowable capacity at other locations, such as museums, movie theaters, aquariums, churches, fitness centers and restaurants. The orange tier would also authorize a reopening of bars for outdoor service and limited indoor service at wineries and breweries.
Falling case rates are continuing throughout the state, including in San Diego and Riverside counties, which both qualified Tuesday to join Los Angeles and Orange counties in the red tier. As of Tuesday, only 11 of the state's 58 counties were still languishing in the most-restrictive purple tier of the economic-reopening blueprint.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said that equates to “more and more business activity, more people back in schools, more and more energy, more optimism about this state and its future.''
The improving numbers came on a day Los Angeles County marked the anniversary of its first public health order issued in response to the virus. The order prohibited public gatherings and shuttered businesses that involved close interactions of people, including restaurants and bars. Three days later, the county issued its formal “Safer At Home'' order requiring people to remain at home unless they were working at an essential business or were obtaining essential service.
“It was a time of great anxiety for our county,'' County Supervisor Hilda Solis said Monday. “Grocery stores experienced long lines for residents, but eventually the streets cleared and people stayed home, concerned about when they'd see their loved ones next. In so many ways, this moment in time feels just like yesterday.''
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said it was a time “when we, like so many others, were coming to terms with the enormity of the threat that COVID-19 represented.''
“At the time, we had no certainty of the road ahead, and no knowledge of the long journey that would entail months of horrific loss and extraordinary hardship,'' Ferrer said. “It is a huge relief to be able to say with certainty that today, L.A. County is recovering. More businesses can reopen. There are more permitted activities and many children are going back to their schools.''
But the county's move this week into the red tier of the state's blueprint provided hope that recovery is on the horizon.
Under Los Angeles County's red tier guidelines -- modeled after the state's -- indoor dining can resume at 25% of capacity. Restaurants must have 8 feet of distance between all tables, which are 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 were 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.
Rules for other businesses that took 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 also allows 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. Disney has announced a goal of reopening by late April. Universal Studios has not yet set a targeted opening date.
The red-tier 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.
Ferrer and Solis warned, however, that despite the loosening business restrictions, the virus remains a threat, and complacency could lead to increased infections and potentially a slide back into the state's most restrictive purple tier, which would re-impose economic shutdowns.
“We only have this opportunity because as a county and as a community, we worked hard,'' Solis said. “We looked out for one another and we came together to crush the (winter) surge. Though we're taking initial steps to reopen some of the hardest-hit sectors of our economy, this in no way means we can completely drop our guards. In fact, it means that as we begin to see some hard-earned reopenings, we must remain as vigilant as ever.''
The county on Tuesday reported another 52 fatalities due to COVID-19, while Long Beach health officials announced two more deaths, lifting the overall countywide death toll from the virus to 22,521.
Another 318 new infections were also reported by the county, while Long Beach added 52 and Pasadena four, raising the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 1,210,961.
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 continued dropping, reaching 857 as of Tuesday, according to state figures, with 236 people in intensive-care units.
County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly noted Monday that while the hospitalization number is still declining, it's dropping at a slower pace than it has in recent weeks. She also said the rate of COVID transmission in the county -- which is the average number of people a COVID patient infects with the virus -- rose slightly in the past week, reaching 0.87, up from 0.79. Although the number is up, it remains lower than 1.0, meaning spread of the virus is being slowed overall. If the number is higher than one, case numbers overall are expected to increase.
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