SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted stay-at-home orders across the state Monday in response to improving coronavirus conditions, a surprising move hailed by beleaguered businesses but that prompted caution from local health officials concerned the public may let down its guard.
“We’re seeing a flattening of the curve — everything that should be up is up, everything that should be down is down — case rates, positivity rates, hospitalizations, ICUs," Newsom said at a virtual news conference.
The turnaround puts California in a starkly different place than it was last month, when some Southern California hospitals overwhelmed by virus patients were crafting emergency plans for rationing care.
Newsom crafted the stay-at-home order in December as coronavirus cases worsened and in anticipation of surges from holiday gatherings. He divided the state into five regions and ultimately four of them had the order imposed because their ICU capacity fellow the stat mandated 15%. Only rural far Northern California stayed above the threshold.
Southern California, which accounts for more than half the state population of nearly 40 million, still has an ICU capacity of 0%, according to state data. But Newsom said based on state modeling for the next four weeks, as cases fall ICU capacity is projected to rise to 33%, the highest of any of the state's regions.
The lifting of the stay-at-home order allows restaurants to serve diners outdoors and places of worship to offer services outside. Hair and nail salons and other businesses may reopen and retailers can have more shoppers in their stores.
The state also is lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, but San Francisco is keeping it in place.
California's latest and worst surge of the pandemic started in mid-October. In a little more than two months the state recorded more than 2 million cases and hospitalizations grew nearly 10 fold to almost 22,000.
As the sickest patients die, the death toll has exploded. The state is averaging 504 deaths a day and its total now tops 37,000 second only to New York.
About 23,000 people are now testing positive for the virus per day, down more than 7,000 from a week ago, with a test positivity rate that has fallen steadily to 8% from a high of nearly 20% at the height of the surge.
In Los Angeles County, home to 10 million people, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer stressed the need for residents to continue to abide by social distancing and mask recommendations otherwise “we’ll be in the horrible position of needing to once again backtrack.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma County’s Health Officer Sundari Mase noted that case rates and positivity rates remain high.
“We must remain vigilant and take all necessary mitigation measures until the vaccine is distributed widely,” Mase said.
Most California counties are now returning to the most restrictive tier of a four-level, color-coded system for determining what businesses can open. It allows up to three households to gather outside, the resumption of low-contact recreation sports like golf and skiing, and the reopening of outdoor gyms. Bars and wineries that don't serve food can't open.
The state had refused to make public the four-week projection for ICU capacities in each region. It did so late Monday after receiving harsh criticism from open government advocates and others who said the public deserves to know information behind decisions affecting their lives. However, state officials did not reveal the underlying data for the projections.
The state predicted the following regional ICU capacity in four weeks: 25% for the San Francisco Bay Area; 27.3% in Greater Sacramento and 22.3% in the San Joaquin Valley. The 18.9% in Northern California. is a significant dip in capacity, which now sits above 40%. State officials didn't explain the drop.
Public health experts had mixed views on the state's decision to lift the order.
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, said little evidence exists to show that outdoor dining or personal care services are major sources of coronavirus spread and that the state’s overall metrics are improving.
He said lifting the orders based on ICU capacity is consistent with the state’s goal of imposing stay-at-home orders to decompress the health system.
“I think it does make sense to allow people to get back to work and get back to their lives somewhat, and to also continue to emphasize the issue of masking and physical distancing indoors” and vaccinations, he said.
But, he said, the state should be providing the public with more data on what’s causing coronavirus transmission and how they are modeling hospital capacity.
Joshua Salomon, a professor of medicine with the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at Stanford University, said it is a concern that the state is lifting its stay-home order despite the continued coronavirus spread.
“At this point we really are still in a very dangerous situation and we need to be quite careful not to reopen too broadly and too quickly,” he said.
Meanwhile, Newsom's political opponents and even members of his own party criticized the decision. Republicans said Newsom was relaxing the rules in response to political pressure and the threat of a recall election. Republican organizers have until mid-March to gather 1.5 million signatures to force a recall vote against Newsom, who is halfway through his first term.
“The most valuable resource in a crisis is trust, but that’s in even shorter supply than vaccines under Gavin Newsom. How many lives have been ruined, jobs lost, students disenfranchised and businesses shuttered by his random and confusing decrees? This is absurd, and we deserve better,” said Kevin Faulconer, the former Republican mayor of San Diego who is exploring challenging Newsom in the next governor’s race.
Several Democratic legislators, meanwhile, said they'd been kept out of the loop on the state's changing rules.
“If you think state legislators were blindsided by, and confused about, the shifting & confusing public health directives, you’d be correct," Democratic Assemblywoman Laura Friedman of Glendale tweeted. “If you think we have been quiet about it in Sacramento, you’d be wrong."
Newsom said the appropriate people had been notified in advance and said the state's goal was to not delay an announcement that could give a sense of optimism to businesses and families.
“Do we delay that for a long protracted comprehensive outreach? Or do we just move forward, based upon the criteria that has been well established?" he said.
He called suggestions he was lifting the order due to political pressure “nonsense."
Associated Press journalists Janie Har and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco, Amy Taxin in Orange County, Stefanie Dazio and John Antczak in Los Angeles, and Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed.