SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday outlined a complex set of circumstances for the state to lift coronavirus restrictions and then described a possible startling new normal: temperature checks for restaurant customers, staggered start times for public schools to keep students separated and no crowds at sporting events, fairs or concerts.
It was a reality check for the state’s 40 million residents after days of encouraging reports about the slow growth in new cases that had many hopeful for a reset of public life following a depressing early spring spent mainly indoors.
But Newsom said he won’t consider loosening the state’s stay-at-home orders until hospitalizations, particularly those in intensive care units, “flatten and start to decline” for at least two weeks. Even then, the governor listed six conditions that must be met, including expanded testing, more protective equipment for health care workers, better treatment and an improved ability to track and isolate those who have been infected — all things the state has struggled to accomplish thus far.
Any broad reopening will require development of a vaccine and evidence the state has developed “herd immunity” to the virus, meaning a sufficiently high percentage won’t get infected. Newsom said “there is no light switch here. I would argue it is more like a dimmer.”
“Let’s not make the mistake of pulling the plug too early, as much as we all want to,” he said. “I don’t want to make a political decision that puts peoples’ lives at risk and puts the economy at even more risk by extending the period of time before we can ultimately transition and get people moving again.”
Newsom’s announcement came on the day the state recorded its highest daily death count — 71 — though the trend lines remain favorable for overall hospitalizations and intensive care patients. Hospital rooms and ventilators were a major concern — earlier this month Newsom said the state needed to find 66,000 more hospital beds for a potential massive surge in cases that hasn’t happened — and the state has ample supplies of both.
Overall, California has more than 25,500 confirmed virus cases and more than 780 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The state’s death count remains far below New York’s nearly 11,000 victims and even is under much smaller states including Massachusetts and Louisiana.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause life-threatening illness, including pneumonia.
California has been under an open-ended, statewide stay-at-home order since March 19. However, the virus’ spread has been uneven, with even some highly populated areas reporting remarkably low totals and some rural counties reporting only a handful of cases and some with none at all.
Los Angeles County, the state’s largest with 10 million residents has 40% of the cases and nearly half the deaths.
The economic impact has been massive, with tens of thousands of businesses closed and more than 2.3 million people filing for unemployment insurance. State officials have delayed tax deadlines, mortgage payments and evictions and have spent roughly $2 billion so far on efforts to curb the virus.
Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association, said nearly half the industry’s 1.2 million workers have been laid off or furloughed in the last three weeks. Condie said he expects owners will need to fundamentally rethink their business models and that they might need to have someone take patrons’ temperatures at the door to see if anyone could be infected with the virus.
But he chafed at the governor’s suggestion that far fewer tables likely will be allowed to keep customers father apart.
Owners are “staring at spreadsheets and saying … ‘If I’m going to have half the customers in any given time frame, can I afford to open up?’” he said.
Many California schools already have said they won’t reopen this school year. Newsom indicated he believes students will return in the fall, albeit with possibly major changes such as staggered start times that could see one group of students attend in the morning and another in the afternoon and no more of the traditional cafeteria setting for meals.
He also was pessimistic about a return of “mass gatherings” for things such as sports events, concerts and fairs.
“Large-scale events that bring in hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of strangers altogether across every conceivable difference, health and otherwise, is not in the cards based upon our current guidelines and current expectations,” he said.
Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican member of the Budget Committee, agreed with Newsom that more time is needed to gather data before beginning to roll back elements of the stay-at-home order. But if the trends on case numbers continue, he said “I think we really need to start moving toward opening up.”
“The damage on the economic side has been significant, and that’s a public health concern as well,” said Gallagher, who represents a district in the state’s Central Valley.
The state Legislature on Thursday will have its first oversight hearing into how Newsom has handled the coronavirus response. Following Newsom’s announcement Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, said the state “must take steps that are at once decisive and responsive to the changing conditions of the COVID crisis.”
“That’s what today’s guidelines represent,” he said.
California’s local governments have been the front-line responders to the crisis. Some, like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area counties, have taken more aggressive approaches than called for in Newsom’s stay-at-home order, in some cases requiring the public to wear face masks.
It’s not clear whether counties without major outbreaks will want to push Newsom for a more rapid reopening.
In San Luis Obispo County along the Central Coast, public health officials began talking publicly on Monday about plans to reopen. The county of about 280,000 people has had just one coronavirus-related death and 120 positive tests, of which 101 already recovered, said Michelle Shoresman, spokeswoman for the county’s pandemic response effort.
“We are in a good place right now to start looking toward the future without loosening the shelter at home status just yet,” she said.