As Los Angeles County prepared to roll out significant changes in the days ahead, daily statistics continued to bolster the hope that the pandemic is loosening its stranglehold on daily life here.
Public Health officials reported 40 new deaths and 839 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, bringing the county’s totals to 23,274 and 1,221,605, respectively.
After dropping below 600 for the first time since March 2020 on Friday, the number of people hospitalized with the virus dropped by a tick, to 590, with 158 in intensive care.
As the growth of infections and deaths continues to ease, local businesses will widen their access on Monday, as the count moves from the red tier to the less-restrictive orange level in the state’s recovery process.
Among the changes kicking in:
- Bars that don’t serve food can open outdoors only with visits limited to 90 minutes and no counter seating;
- Breweries, wineries and distilleries without meals, can open indoors at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer, by reservation only. There’s still no live entertainment or indoor television viewing allowed;
- Restaurants can increase indoor dining capacity to 50% or 200 people;
- Cardrooms can operate indoors at 25% capacity with no food and beverages allowed at card tables;
- Places of worship can hold services indoors at 50% capacity;
- Fitness centers can operate indoors at 25% capacity and indoor pools can now re-open. Masks are always required unless swimming;
- Movie theatres can increase capacity to 50% or 200 people, whichever is less. Seats must be reserved, and each group must have 6 feet of distance from other groups in all directions. Eating is allowed in only designated areas or in reserved seats;
- Family entertainment centers can open indoors at 25% capacity for distanced activities, such as bowling or escape rooms;
- Grocery and retail stores can increase capacity to 75%, although Public Health strongly recommends grocery stores remain at 50% capacity until April 15 to allow as many grocery store workers as possible get vaccinated.
- Hair salons, barbershops and personal care services can increase capacity to 75% with masks required, except for services where customers need to remove their masks. For services where customers must remove their face coverings, staff must wear a fitted N95 and goggles or a mask with a face shield;
- Museums, zoos and aquariums can be open indoors at 50% capacity and
- Youth and adult recreational Sports can apply to Public Health for approval for athletic events, tournaments or competitions that involve more than two teams or multiple people.
The county qualified for the new tier last week but held off until Monday to give officials ad businesses a chance to prepare. Long Beach, which has its own health department, parted ways with the county and immediately moved to orange-tier rules on Wednesday. The city generally aligned with the state’s guidelines, including the elimination of capacity limits at retail stores.
Pasadena, which also has its own health department, plans to follow the county’s lead and wait until Monday before changing its restrictions.
The county is expected to announced Monday its plans for allowing guests into indoor venues for concerts, theatrical performances and sporting events. California moved Friday to allow indoor concerts, theatrical performances and other gatherings including professional basketball and hockey games starting April 15, but it’s up to county officials to determine when such shows would be allowed here.
County officials are permitted in each county to impose stricter regulations than the state allows. For indoor live events and performances, which state officials said includes sports arenas, theaters and other event venues, such events are banned in counties in the restrictive purple tier, but permitted in other tiers, with varying capacities, advance ticket purchases, physical distancing, designated eating/drinking areas and in-state guests only. Masks will remain mandatory. Proof of full vaccination or testing will also be required.
“We still have to see all the details,” said Dr. Muntu Davis, Los Angeles County’s health officer, who added that the county in general tries to align with the state’s guidance but local leaders must “try to figure out what makes the most sense for us” locally to determine if any adjustments need to be made.
“This news is very encouraging, and we will continue to monitor state, county, and city guidelines for a safe reopening of our venues,” said Alex Hodges, CEO of Nederlander Concerts, which handles theaters such as the Dolby and Pantages in Los Angeles, and the City National Grove of Anaheim.
After weeks of shutdown amid the winter surge, changes are coming swiftly now, because of the dramatically improving statistics. “By following public health guidelines such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated when eligible, we can resume additional activities as we take steps to reduce risk,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency.
Rules for theme parks and outdoor live event venues — such as Dodger Stadium — went into effect Thursday. Those rules allowed theme parks to open at 25% capacity, and outdoor venues to open at 33% capacity.
Fueling the county’s progress was the apparent effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccine, which has deepened its impact despite the sporadic supply line from state and federal stockpiles.
More than 4 million doses of vaccine have now been injected into the arms of people who live and work in Los Angeles County with more than 1.4 million now fully vaccinated. As a study this week showed, even one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine provides significant protection.
The county was now vaccinating on average 80,000 people per day, putting it on track to achieve about 75% immunity by the end of June, officials said Friday. As of a week ago, March 27, 68% of those 65 and older had received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine.
Last week, there were further signs that supplies were increasing. County officials were expecting nearly 400,000 doses next week including 118,000 of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That marks the highest shipment yet since vaccines began arriving in the county in December.
Californians age 50 and older became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations on Thursday — adding about 1.4 million Los Angeles County residents to the pool of people trying to get appointments. There are about 2 million people in the county in that group, but about 600,000 are believed to have previously been vaccinated as part of another eligible category.
The county’s chief science officer, Dr. Paul Simon, said Friday that about 16% of residents aged 16-29 have been vaccinated already, and about 26% of those aged 30-49, meaning there will be a major jump in demand for appointments on the 15th.
“We do urge patience among all out there who are understandably extremely eager to be vaccinated,” he said.
For the second week in a row, the county this week is expected to set another record in terms of its vaccine allocation, with 397,430 doses expected. That includes 118,000 Johnson & Johnson single-shot doses.
Of the overall allotment, 72% will be used for first doses and 28% for second doses, Simon said.
By the end of April, county officials anticipate receiving close to 600,000 doses per week. Additional doses were also planned to increase at pharmacies, health clinics, FEMA sites, and health systems such as Kaiser and UCLA that receive supplies direct from federal sources.
Amid the progress, county health officials continue to urge residents to take precautions, acknowledging what could be seen as mixed messaging about the state of the pandemic.
“The declining number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is a very encouraging trend and reflects the significant decrease in community transmission we experienced a few weeks back,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Saturday. “We will continue to make progress slowing transmission, preventing suffering, and saving lives when we all do our part to keep each other safe by following the rules and getting vaccinated when it is our turn. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, recently traveled out of state, were in crowds in close proximity to unmasked individuals, or attended large gatherings, please get tested. Don’t take a chance on spreading this virus to others.”
Davis told reporters Friday he understands that people might get confused as they are bombarded with updates about the virus — the success of vaccines, plans for more business reopenings, the threat of COVID virus variants and continued pleas for mask-wearing and social distancing — but he said “that’s the way things go in terms of a new virus.”
“We’re learning as we go and we’re adjusting as we go as well,” he said. “… We look for people to stay abreast and help work with us on the restrictions or lack of restrictions.”
City News Service contributed to this report.