As COVID-19 cases surge throughout California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday several changes to the state’s tiered reopening system, including moving 40 counties back to more restrictive tiers and tightening rules on mask-wearing in public.
The change comes after the state saw its “fastest increase in cases” since the pandemic began in March, Newsom said, causing the state’s health officials to begin “sounding the alarm.”
“The spread of COVID-19, if left unchecked, could quickly overwhelm our health care system and lead to catastrophic outcomes,” Newsom said in a news release. “That is why we are pulling an emergency brake in the Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Now is the time to do all we can — government at all levels and Californians across the state — to flatten the curve again as we have done before.”
In a livestreamed press conference, Newsom said the state is currently facing a 4.6% 14-day average and a 5% 7-day average test positivity rate, which he said is better than the 9.8% national 7-day average but still worrisome.
“The rate of increase is alarming nonetheless, and while we have fared better than the national average, we don’t compare ourselves to the average,” Newsom said. “We can do more and we can do better. You have done more and you have done better.”
Twenty-eight counties will now slide back into the more restrictive purple tier, signaling widespread COVID-19 transmission. That means 94% of California’s population will be facing these new restrictions by Tuesday, if they are not already in this tier.
Some counties, including Napa, San Francisco and Humboldt, will fall back two restriction levels.
With the new changes, counties will move back after one week, not two, and some counties will be able to move multiple tiers. Counties will also be required to move more swiftly in making changes for restrictions to industries, instead of a 72-hour wait period.
The state will reassess tiers for counties multiple times during a week.
The California Department of Public Health also put out stricter guidelines on mask-wearing in public. The new rules state Californians must wear a face covering any time they are not at home, with limited exceptions such as if a person is in a car or office alone.
Assemblymember James Gallagher, a Republican from Yuba City who successfully sued Newsom over an executive order dealing with elections and mail-in balloting, said the virus is spreading “not because some restaurants have been open, it’s because that is what viruses do.”
“The Governor and state bureaucrats can color code counties and change rules as they go, but the basics remain the same: We are all free people who can exercise our freedom responsibly,” Gallagher said in a statement.
But Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, said that’s not the case. He said that many sectors that allow for masks to come down when people are around others — like offices, bars and restaurants — are where COVID-19 spreads.
Anytime people are gathering, “sitting at tables, even if outside, pretty close to people that they aren’t with all the time with their masks down, those are the ideal situations for COVID to spread,” Dr. Ghaly said.
Dr. Ghaly said they are “strongly encouraging” people not to gather indoors, especially those living in a county within the more-restrictive and high-transmission purple and red tiers.
With the holidays approaching, state officials announced last week that travelers arriving in California should quarantine for 14 days before doing any outside activity.
“We know when people gather with people they don’t live with, often close friends or family members, we think it’s okay to put your guard down … to take off your mask and enjoy a drink or enjoy a meal,” Dr. Ghaly said. “But it’s exactly those moments that might create a high transmission risk.”
Newsom said his top priority for the next legislative session is supporting small businesses, and working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President-elect Joe Biden to make sure there’s a “robust” stimulus to provide relief to individuals and business owners.
Newsom added that his $1 trillion ask for help to state and local governments “now seems modest.”
Over the past 14 days, California has seen a 48% increase in hospitalizations, and 39% increase in ICU visits. At least 5% of current hospital patients in the state have COVID-19, and 13% of ICU cases are patients who have the virus.
Newsom said the state is “dusting off” emergency surge medical facilities to supplement hospital capacity if needed. These facilities can hold a total of 1,872 surge hospital beds. Newsom said the first to come online would be in Imperial County.
He also added that the state has about 20,000 ventilators and hundreds of millions of masks and other personal protective equipment still available.
Despite the changes, Newsom said the state’s tiered system is working as designed. However, he added state officials are considering imposing curfews to further limit the spread, as well as possible restrictions on alcohol sales, similar to those in Massachusetts and Virginia.
The governor was called out last week after he and his wife, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, ate dinner with friends at the famous French Laundry restaurant for a birthday party. The dinner happened as Newsom called Californians to limit activity with people outside of their own households.
“I made a bad mistake. Instead of sitting down, I should have stood up, walked back, got in my car and driven back to my house,” Newsom said. “The spirit of what I’m preaching all the time was contradicted, and I’ve got to own that. So I want to apologize to you because I need to preach and practice. Not just preach.”
Asked if he worries people will take coronavirus restrictions less seriously after he was at a larger gathering, Newsom said yes.
“We’ve been out three times since February,” Newsom said. “Twice with my wife, by myself, outdoors. And this one.”
Watch as Gov. Gavin Newsom provided an update on the state's response to COVID-19. This originally broadcast on Nov. 16, 2020, at 12 p.m.
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