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A new high for coronavirus deaths in California as counties push ahead with reopening

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 5/20/2020 By Hannah Fry, Rong-Gong Lin II, Luke Money and Colleen Shalby, Los Angeles Times
a group of people walking down a sidewalk: Manon Guijarro, 21, who just graduated from Pierce College, has her personal graduation photo made by friend Paige Johnson, 21, at Chris Burden's outdoor, "Urban Light," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles on May 18, 2020. Some outdoor museums can open but LACMA's indoors is still closed but outdoor exhibits are still open to the public. Outdoor museums are among the places that Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday have the green light to reopen in some regions, but that statement has created confusion is places such as Los Angeles County, which is giving museums, outdoor and otherwise, a red light for now. © Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS Manon Guijarro, 21, who just graduated from Pierce College, has her personal graduation photo made by friend Paige Johnson, 21, at Chris Burden's outdoor, "Urban Light," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles on May 18, 2020. Some outdoor museums can open but LACMA's indoors is still closed but outdoor exhibits are still open to the public. Outdoor museums are among the places that Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday have the green light to reopen in some regions, but that statement has created confusion is places such as Los Angeles County, which is giving museums, outdoor and otherwise, a red light for now.

LOS ANGELES — California recorded 132 new coronavirus-related fatalities Tuesday — the most in a single day since the pandemic began — as counties across the state continue cementing plans to reopen their economies.

The highest number of deaths previously reported in a single day statewide was 117 in late April. Tuesday’s rise, which comes on a day when data from the previous weekend is typically released, pushed the state’s death toll past 3,400. The number of confirmed cases statewide has climbed to 83,864, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times.

a girl with graffiti: A woman, masked against COVID-19, walks past a building that features the image of Britney Spears at a shopping center in the Fairfax District in Los Angeles on May 18, 2020. © Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS A woman, masked against COVID-19, walks past a building that features the image of Britney Spears at a shopping center in the Fairfax District in Los Angeles on May 18, 2020.

While the death count continues to rise, other metrics show significant progress, enough that even some of the most cautious local health officials have agreed to begin slowly reopening businesses and public spaces.

Bing COVID-19 tracker: Latest numbers by country and state

The number of newly identified coronavirus cases across California declined from the previous week, and hospitalizations have dropped more than 15% from a peak six weeks ago, according to a Times analysis.

In Los Angeles County, which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in California with more than 1,900 deaths and nearly 40,000 cases, officials have cautioned that reopening the economy will be more difficult than in other parts of the state.

County officials on Tuesday announced a goal of reopening more of the economy by July 4. The mission is to reopen retail businesses, restaurants and malls at a steady pace while trying to avoid additional outbreaks.

“We have to do a lot of things right so we can actually get to that date,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

The proposed timeline was unveiled during a meeting of the county’s Economic Resiliency Task Force, which has been charged with developing plans for helping restore the region’s battered economy.

There have been more than 1 million unemployment claims filed in Los Angeles County to date, and more than 75% of the projected job losses are in positions that pay $50,000 a year or less. Restaurants and retail businesses are among the hardest hit, according to data presented to the task force.

“The longer we stay closed in certain sectors, particularly small businesses and restaurants, the odds are that they will not be able to come back,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said. “I feel that we have to get to the point that we learn to live with the virus. We cannot stay locked down forever.”

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Currently, most retail stores and restaurants are allowed to provide curbside pickup, while hiking trails and parks have reopened and active recreation is allowed at beaches. Face coverings are still required, and gatherings are not permitted in the county.

Although several counties have been given permission for dine-in restaurant service and in-store shopping — and more counties are making cases for further reopening — officials say L.A. County is not yet ready to take that step.

Still, some communities are looking at alternatives. Leaders in Long Beach moved forward this week with an “open streets initiative” that would repurpose some roads in the city to accommodate recreation and outdoor dining. Long Beach’s restaurant dining rooms remain closed under state and local health orders, and the city’s hospitality industry is struggling.

“Even though they’ve been allowed to continue serving customers through pickup and delivery, that hasn’t provided enough revenue for many establishments and some restaurants just aren’t set up for that model,” Mayor Robert Garcia wrote in a community message. “We want to do everything we can to help restaurants get open and stay open.”

L.A. County leaders have emphasized that loosening restrictions depends on the public’s willingness to practice social distancing, wear face coverings and take other precautions to prevent a spike in cases.

As the crisis took hold in March, every person who tested positive for the virus in the county was infecting an average of 3 1/2 other people, or a rate of 1 to 3.5.

Last week, officials released data showing remarkable progress: The infection rate has fallen to just 1 to 1.

Officials believe the drop is tied to stay-at-home orders imposed in late March.

“This represents tremendous progress, and we should all be very proud. It is also what allows us to start easing health officer orders and the restrictions that we’ve all been living with for the past several weeks,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of health services for L.A. County. “Safer at Home bought us time.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week loosened rules linking coronavirus infection rates and deaths to permitted activities, a move that is expected to allow many parts of the state to reopen more quickly.

However, leaders in some regions contend that their economies should be able to reopen ahead of the state’s schedule.

The Tulure County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to move the county all the way through Phase 3 of California’s reopening road map, which would allow movie theaters, shopping malls, salons, gyms and dine-in restaurants to reopen. In-person religious services also would be able to resume.

The decision came as the county reported a spike of 103 new cases of COVID-19 and four more deaths. By their own admission, Tulare County officials acknowledge that they don’t meet all the latest criteria for a more rapid reopening, falling short in the areas of new case and positive test rates, as well as contact tracing staff.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, sent a letter to Tulare County officials this week warning them that the county could lose disaster funding if it continues down its current path.

“If Tulare County believes there is no emergency, such that it can ignore the governor’s executive orders or the state public health officer’s directives, the county would not be able to demonstrate that it was extraordinarily and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Ghilarducci wrote.

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(Times staff writer Sean Greene contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Los Angeles Times

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