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OAKLAND, Calif .– Faced with mounting political pressure and numerous lawsuits from companies forced to shut down, California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted a strict stay-at-home order on Monday and gave local authorities greater control on restaurants, other businesses could reopen.
The rate of new coronavirus cases in the state has slowed dramatically, but experts fear the respite will be brief if the most contagious variants of the coronavirus plaguing Europe become prevalent in the United States.
The easing of restrictions comes as large parts of southern California continue to experience high death and hospitalization rates, and many Los Angeles County hospitals continue to be inundated with Covid-19 patients.
Monday’s changes in no way remove all virus restrictions in the state. The overturning of the stay-at-home decision, which had already been lifted in the Sacramento area almost two weeks ago, brings the state back to a tiered rule system tied to the prevalence of the virus in each. county.
Dr Mark Ghaly, secretary of the National Agency for Health and Social Services, said Monday that the December vacation had not overwhelmed the health system “as far as we feared”.
“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous wave in this pandemic to date, which is the light at the end of the tunnel that we were hoping for,” said Dr Ghaly.
But the latest adjustments were unlikely to appease the large segment of California’s population suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic, as well as those frustrated and confused by the state’s red-and-green approach to dealing with it.
Driven in large part by restaurant and hotel closings, California’s unemployment rate rose to 9% in December, up nearly a percentage point from the previous month. It was the first increase in the unemployment rate since April.
Mark Geragos, a lawyer and restaurant owner in Los Angeles who has filed lawsuits against the county and state on behalf of businesses forced to shut down, said Monday he had reopened his restaurant, Engine Co. No.28.
His lawsuits channeled the frustrations of business owners who felt many of the orders were arbitrary. In a commonly cited example, film productions were allowed to continue, with the cast and crew eating out while neighboring restaurants were closed.
“It was the government’s worst effort,” Geragos said of the business closures. He repeated an argument he had used in his lawsuits: “It was not motivated by any data or science,” he said.
Mr Newsom said he was quick to lift the restrictions as quickly as possible once the figures indicated it would be safe. He described accusations that he was making politically-based pandemic response decisions as “complete and utter nonsense.”
The new rules were a welcome move for many.
In the Bay Area, officials said restaurants may reopen for alfresco dining again. In Silicon Valley, officials from the Santa Clara Department of Public Health announced that in addition to outdoor dining, professional, college, and adult and youth sports would be allowed to resume.
When the stay-at-home order was announced in early December, some Californians expressed a mixture of anger and futility. Weeks after the order, cases exploded and hospitals were overwhelmed.
In the spring, summer and early fall, officials were able to make a convincing claim that the closure of schools, restaurants and hair salons was keeping the virus at levels well below those in other states. But the winter wave turned the tide – and, for many, clouded assumptions about how the virus is spread.
In November, Mr Newsom and Dr Ghaly held a briefing in which they showed California ranked 39th in the country on a seven-day average of confirmed cases per capita. Dr Ghaly singled out four states – North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota – as having much higher seven-day case rates than California.
Two months later, the picture is radically different: California has fallen from 39th to 7th by the same measure, and its one-week average of cases has surpassed those four states when adjusted for population. The British variant, estimated to be around 50% more transmissible, was first detected in California in December and researchers are tracking the spread of another variant that may have played a big part in the winter wave.
California has also slipped under larger states with more laissez-faire virus precautions approaches like Texas and Florida. These two states now have fewer per capita cases during the pandemic than California, according to a New York Times database.
Dr Bob Wachter, professor and director of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said these parameters can be misleading because they depend on the number of people tested.
A better comparison, he said, was the number of deaths. And according to this metric, California fared better: Florida had 24% more deaths per capita and Texas 27% more.
Dr Wachter said the differences in death rates in those states account for thousands of lives saved in California.
California officials, he added, are under tremendous pressure to reopen more quickly, and some measures such as restricting outdoor dining are difficult to justify in the absence of scientific evidence that transmission often occurs in these circumstances.
“But for me in this compromise, when you are not sure, you lean towards safety and save lives,” he said.
Although praised by many public health officials, the state’s response to the pandemic has put Mr. Newsom, a Democrat, in a more vulnerable political position, even in this extremely democratic state.
The governor has faced increasing political pressure due to a recall effort. Experts said the vaccine rollout, along with efforts to reopen, was a key test for its administration.
“The governor’s biggest weakness is with the pandemic,” said Mark Baldassare, chief executive officer of the Public Policy Institute in California. “Both in terms of the spread of the disease and the rollout of vaccinations – and that has been pretty grim.”
Monday morning, criticism came from all directions.
The California Public Interest Research Group, a left-wing consumer advocacy organization, said Newsom acted too soon, especially with new variants threatening to accelerate the spread of the virus. “We shouldn’t risk going back in recent progress against this virus just to allow people to eat out or have their hair cut again,” said Emily Rusch, executive director of research group.
Jessica Millan Patterson, president of the California Republican Party, described the reopening movement as a “sad and pathetic” attempt to counter those pushing for its ouster. “The decisions of this governor were never based on science”, she tweeted.
Critics from Mr Newsom have also pointed to the slow rollout of vaccines by the state. With 4.7 percent of California’s population having received at least one dose, the state is below the national average of 5.6 percent and near the bottom of the vaccination progress list.
On Monday, Newsom clarified the state’s vaccine prioritization framework: Along with healthcare workers and anyone 65 and over, the state will prioritize emergency medical workers, emergency medical workers food and agriculture, teachers and school staff.
After that, he said, the state will “switch to age-based eligibility” and focus on providing vaccines to communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
Mr Newsom said delays in reporting contributed to what he described as misconceptions about the relative slow pace of vaccine deployment. He compared California to a huge ship.
“It takes a little while to change course,” he says. “But when it changes course, it creates a tremendous dynamic.”
Thomas fuller reported from Oakland, and Jill cowan from Los Angeles.