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SAN FRANCISCO – California was the first state in the U.S. to issue a stay-at-home order to combat the coronavirus and it seems determined to be the last one to open up.
That was likely the impression created by headlines saying Los Angeles County may remain locked out until August, and the vast California State University system will cancel most in-person classes in the fall and conduct nearly all instruction online.
The reality is more nuanced.
The country’s most populous state has actually been taking steps toward a gradual reopening, and on Wednesday 10 counties joined two previous ones in going deeper into Stage 2 of the four-phase process, which allows for in-store retail and dine-in restaurant service, with limitations. Also Wednesday, the beaches in hard-hit L.A. County were again available to the public for exercise and several recreational activities after a six-week closure.
On Tuesday, almost eight weeks after imposing a statewide lockdown March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom had authorized enclosed shopping centers, strip malls and some offices to reopen. And over the weekend, booksellers, sporting goods stores, florists, clothiers and other retail shops were permitted to sell with curbside pickup. Some manufacturing also restarted.
So, is California reopening too slowly, too fast or at just the right pace?
“I think we’re being appropriately cautious,’’ said Dr. George Rutherford, head of infectious disease and global epidemiology at the University of California-San Francisco. “We have clear indicators of when we’re going to move away from shelter-in-place that other states may have but aren’t paying any attention to. You don’t want to have that rush to quickly get things back to ‘normal’ be paid for in lives.’’
There’s plenty of pressure to return to some form of normalcy, not only from the occasional protests that have sprouted in the state capital of Sacramento and other spots, but also from the stunning economic collapse brought on by the restrictions instituted to curb the virus’ spread.
In January, California was projecting a $6 billion budget surplus and $21 billion in cash reserves. Now it’s expecting a $54 billion budget deficit.
Even as President Donald Trump has urged a quicker reopening pace for the state, whose pre-pandemic economy would rank fifth-largest in the world if it were a country, Newsom continues to maintain such decisions will be based on public health and science.
“This is a dynamic process and we don’t want to delay unnecessarily based on timelines,’’ Newsom said Wednesday. “It’s not about timelines. It’s not about deadlines. It’s simply about data.’’
The data indicate California, with a population of 40 million, has the fifth-most confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. with 72,507 as of Wednesday. On a per-capita basis, though, it ranks 33rd with 183 cases per 100,000 residents. And California’s rate of 7 deaths per 100,000 people is tied for 29th in the nation.
Newsom reported 1,759 new cases and 87 deaths from Tuesday to Wednesday, with a steady rate of hospitalizations and a slightly downward trend in the number of patients in intensive care units.
“This is a very different state (of affairs) than other states where you have huge peaks and decreases,’’ he said. “We’ve had stability for many, many weeks.’’
That has encouraged him to loosen some of the reins, but Los Angeles remains a trouble spot. The nation’s biggest county, with a population of 10 million, has recorded 34,428 cases, nearly half the state’s total. L.A. County’s 1,659 deaths from COVID-19 represent 57% of California’s fatalities.
It’s no wonder then that county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the “Safer-at-home’’ order would likely last past July, then followed that Wednesday by extending it indefinitely two days before it was due to expire.
Ferrer added that some of the constraints would be relaxed, including access to outdoor recreation areas that include bike parks and tennis courts, and that the health order could be modified along the way. She also said the county may reopen at a different time than much of the rest of California.
The stark reality of the protracted battle against the virus in a state that has fared fairly well was further highlighted by Cal State’s early decision to shut down in-person instruction in the fall.
Timothy White, chancellor of the nation’s largest system of four-year public universities – it has 23 campuses and more than 480,000 students – said it was simply too risky to bring that many people together in close proximity with the virus looming as such a big threat.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a CNN interview that he supports the decision, adding in more general terms, “This is just as dangerous a virus today as it was when it arrived, and we should never become too comfortable. We’re learning to live with it. We’re not moving beyond it.’’
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California coronavirus stay at home order: When will it open back up?