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L.A. County Qualifies For Orange Tier. So When Will We Reopen Fully?

Diners eat dinner at a restaurant's outdoor tables on March 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Diners eat dinner at a restaurant's outdoor tables on March 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. | Michael Tullberg/Getty Images
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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles County officially qualified today for an advance to the less-restrictive orange tier of the state's COVID-19 business-reopening blueprint, but it's unclear exactly when the county — which has final say on local health orders — might ease economic restrictions, and to what extent.

Moving to the orange tier requires a county to have an average daily rate of new COVID infections of 3.9 per 100,000 residents, along with a testing-positivity rate of 4.9% or less, and maintain those levels for two consecutive weeks.

According to weekly figures released by the state Tuesday, Los Angeles had a new case rate of 3.1 per 100,000 residents, and a testing-positivity rate of 1.5%. Both numbers were down from last week, when the county's case rate was 3.7 per 100,000 residents, and the testing-positivity rate of 1.8%.

State rules technically require counties to remain in a tier for three weeks before advancing in the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, and Los Angeles County has only been in the red tier for a little over two weeks. With the new numbers, however, the state cleared Los Angeles County to move into the orange tier despite the three-week requirement.

But it will be up to county officials to decide when to loosen business restrictions in accordance with orange-tier guidelines. The county delayed a move to red-tier guidelines to give business owners time to make required adjustments, and a similar delay is anticipated before orange-tier rules are implemented.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer and county Supervisor Hilda Solis are scheduled to hold a media briefing Tuesday afternoon to discuss the switch and possible timing of a new public health order.

Moving to the orange tier authorizes the county to lift all capacity restrictions at retail and personal care businesses, while raising the capacity limit from 25% to 50% for movie theaters, churches, museums, zoos, aquariums and restaurants. Fitness center capacity could be increased from 10% to 25%. The orange tier also allows for bars to reopen outdoors, while card rooms and family entertainment centers could be cleared to resume indoor operations.

The move also allows Dodger Stadium to increase fan capacity to 33%, up from the current 20%, while theme parks would be able to expand capacity to 25%, up from 15%.

The county could, however, opt to maintain stricter rules than the state authorizes.

The county has largely aligned with the state's guidelines under the red tier, although it continues to ban restaurants, breweries and wineries from turning on their television sets, in an effort to prevent gatherings of sports fans. The state and other counties have no such restriction.

Ferrer said last week health officials will work with the Board of Supervisors and representatives from business sectors impacted by the move to the orange tier, and will "assess what makes sense for L.A. County."

"We are committed, along with everyone, to move forward," she said. "And we are excited about this opportunity to stay on our recovery journey. And we know this means a lot to everyone. But we have to do it in a way that doesn't jeopardize safety."

Despite the move to the orange tier, health officials are continuing to preach vigilance, warning that cases have been rising in other states and countries. They said the continued emergence of COVID-19 variants that can spread more easily from person to person could lead to another surge in cases.

County officials also fear that upcoming spring break activities — along with the Easter and Passover holidays — could prompt gatherings that threaten to quickly spread the virus.

"While COVID-19 numbers have decreased in L.A. County, transmission remains widespread and is increasing in many other states and countries,'' the county Department of Public Health warned Sunday.

Vaccine eligibility will expand Thursday to all residents aged 50 and over, but with vaccine supplies still relatively limited, getting an appointment could prove difficult. The city of Los Angeles' appointment system through Carbon Health was accepting appointment slots for the 50-and-over group on Monday, but the state's MyTurn site was not.

Eligibility will expand to everyone aged 16 and up on April 15.

The county this week was set to receive its largest weekly allotment of vaccine to date — 338,100 doses — and tens of thousands more doses will be sent directly to other local vaccination providers, such as pharmacies and health care centers.

But when eligibility expands to those 50 and over on Thursday, it will add an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people to the pool of residents competing for limited doses. That's on top of the millions of people who are already eligible for the shots.

Noting that case totals are typically low on Mondays due to weekend reporting lags, the county on Monday reported seven new COVID-19 deaths, lifting the countywide total from throughout the pandemic to 23,084.

The county also announced 378 new infections, while Long Beach health officials announced 57 new cases and Pasadena added three, raising the cumulative number since the pandemic began to 1,218,643.

According to state figures, there were 649 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID-19, with 175 people in intensive care. That's down slightly from Sunday, when 655 people were hospitalized.

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