SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Significantly fewer people are testing positive and being hospitalized for the coronavirus in California. But Gov. Gavin Newsom and his top health official said this week they won’t speed up the deliberate process they established last month for reopening the state.
The system allows counties to reopen more businesses and activities as they meet thresholds for infection rates and cases. There are four color-coded levels, and five new counties moved out of the highest tier, clearing the way for their restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and churches to resume limited indoor activities.
The new additions mean the state has now eased restrictions for 8.5 million people living in three of the six most populous counties — San Diego, Orange and Santa Clara.
Statewide, California’s infection rate has dropped steadily for weeks and now sits at 3.8% for the last seven days. Hospitalizations total about 3,100, the lowest since mid-June and down 24% in two weeks.
“If those appear to be promising numbers, it’s because they are,” Newsom said.
But he emphasized the encouraging data won’t change the state’s process for reopening.
As of Tuesday, 33 of the state’s 58 counties representing more than two-thirds of the state’s population are in the “widespread” category, which requires schools to only offer distance learning and most businesses to limit indoor operations.
In addition to the five counties allowed to reopen more businesses — Amador, Orange, Placer, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz — Newsom said seven more could be upgraded by next week, but only if they meet certain benchmarks for two consecutive weeks.
The cautious approach is designed to avoid what happened in the spring, when the state reopened quickly only to see a surge of new cases.
“We’re confident that going slow and stringent is going to be the way that carries us forward and ensures that we don’t move back,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top public health official.
While California is doing better as a whole, the state is still seeing outbreaks of the virus in the Central Valley, mostly in rural farming communities, said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. But cases are improving in the more populated areas.
“Part of it is we’re getting a break. Schools aren’t back in yet, and residential colleges really aren’t back yet,” he said. “When that stuff starts, that’s when we may see a lot of new transmission.”
Newsom has praised the public’s embrace of health orders, including a wearing masks and avoiding large indoor gatherings. But Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said the real reason for California’s improving numbers is that the people most at risk have likely already been infected, shrinking the pool of potential new cases.
“People have to move away from this idea that everyone is at the same risk. That’s not true at all,” he said. “That’s why our interventions have to be better targeted to those at greatest risk.”
Pressure is growing in some areas for Newsom to move faster to reopen more sectors of the economy and to allow larger crowds for things like religious services.
On Sunday, about 3,000 people attended an outdoor service at the state Capitol dubbed “Let Us Worship.” The California Highway Patrol, which controls access to the capitol grounds, said it issued a permit for the event because the organizer said he was expecting between 500 and 1,000 people. It was enough to convince officers that “proper physical distancing could be achieved” to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But when many more showed up, the Highway Patrol noted most who attended “failed to socially distance” despite reminders from both a permit officer on site and Sean Feucht, who hosted the event. Feucht describes himself on his website as “a missionary, artist, speaker, author, activist and founder of multiple worldwide movements.”
In a statement, the Highway Patrol said it did not break up the event in part because it would have required too many officers and taken too much time to safely disperse a crowd of that size.
Newsom said he was waiting for more information about the event. But he urged people to follow public health guidelines when holding events.
“Spread of this disease is not helped to have thousands and thousands of people not practicing physical distancing, not wearing masks,” Newsom said. “Quite literally someone could lose their lives. And I know that’s not the intent of anyone who organizes these events, but it may be the outcome.”
The coronavirus in Sacramento County is listed as “widespread,” putting it in the highest risk category for the spread of the disease that has infected nearly 738,000 people statewide and killed more than 13,700. State public health guidance allows for outdoor worship services in counties designated as “widespread,” but with modifications to slow the spread of the disease.
Shannon Grove, the Republican leader in the state Senate, attended the event less than two weeks after being exposed to the coronavirus by a colleague who had tested positive. Public health guidelines say people exposed to the virus should isolate for two weeks, even if they test negative for the disease.
Grove’s office did not respond to a request for comment.