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California eases more restrictions; restaurants may open

KATHLEEN RONAYNE AND AMY TAXIN

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a dramatic relaxation Monday of health standards to reopen the state, a move that could allow nearly every county to proceed more quickly, and he offered the possibility of pro sports returning — without fans — by early June.

The announcement marked a significant departure from strict criteria Newsom laid out just over a week ago that would have prevented most large counties from reopening and came as residents have become increasingly restless to return to normal and some business owners have defied rules to stay closed.

While retail businesses may open for curbside pickup statewide, the new criteria would let counties seek state approval to allow dining in restaurants and other services to reopen. Newsom also suggested it may only be a matter of weeks before people can get their hair cut or worship in a church, which have been flashpoints in the fight over reopening.

“Bottom line is: People can go at their own pace, and we are empowering our local health directors and county officials that understand their local communities and conditions,” Newsom said. “We’re going to start seeing a lot more activity, let’s just make sure we do it thoughtfully and very, very strategically.”

He credited the change in rules to a decline in state hospitalizations in the last two weeks, the distribution of more protective gear for healthcare workers and the state’s ability to test more people for the virus.

Newsom was the first governor in the nation to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, in mid-March, and until recently most counties complied with restrictions that closed most retail businesses, gyms, bars and restaurants for anything other than takeout food. But his rules for reopening had been criticized by some large cities and counties, particularly in Southern California, as too restrictive.

Politicians welcomed the changes and several predicted they would soon be able to get the stamp of approval to move toward a wider reopening.

“I’m very glad the governor has heard our call for change,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, who predicted restaurants could reopen there in days. “A one-size-fits-all policy is not realistic for a state the size of California.”

Twenty-four counties in mostly rural Northern California already won approval under the old guidance.

The new criteria eliminate requirements that a county have no deaths and no more than than 10 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Instead, counties must have no more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents or no higher than an 8% positive rate among people tested for the coronavirus. They also must have no higher than a 5% increase in hospitalizations over a one week period or no more than 20 people hospitalized per day over a two week period. The latter will ensure small counties don’t get penalized for just one or two extra hospitalizations.

The state had put the death criterion in place to go more slowly toward reopening, said Kate Folmar, a state spokeswoman. But it's a less timely indicator than hospitalizations because people tend to die three to four weeks after infection.

Paula Cannon, an immunology professor at the University of Southern California, said death is not a good measure of how widespread the virus is in the community and the figure can be distorted by high numbers of nursing home deaths, which the state has experienced.

Cannon said Newsom had run the risk of losing widespread support if his rules seemed unfair, but he instead responded to criticism by making the change and “treating the citizens of California like adults."

Other requirements for hospital capacity, testing and contacting everyone who might be infected by each person who tests positive for COVID-19 remain in place.

The Democratic governor didn’t say which of the state’s 58 counties he expected would not meet his criteria, though he pointed to Los Angeles, Kings and Tulare County as those facing challenges. He cited Tulare due to cases at nursing homes and Kings due to cases at meat packing plants.

Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous and with the most coronavirus cases, faces broader challenges and will probably proceed more cautiously, he said.

Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the county, which has more than half the state’s 3,300 reported deaths, welcomed the changes and would review the new rules and apply to move forward when eligible even if they decide to take a slower approach.

Newsom was vague about how sports could resume by early June, though he said it would to be done without spectators and with “deep modifications” that would protect players and staff. That was a sharp change from comments he made just over a week ago when he said it was difficult to imagine what leagues would do if a player tested positive, suggesting they might have to quarantine an entire team.

Ferrer said teams and players unions have been drafting plans to return to play and she was happy to hear that the governor may allow sports to resume.

“I know for all of us we’d be very excited to be able to see our teams starting to get ready to play again,” Ferrer said.

Newsom's announcement at a Napa restaurant came the same day one of California’s largest tribal casinos reopened to a big crowd in the San Diego area and as the San Francisco Bay Area county that reported the first known U.S. death from coronavirus said it would allow some retail businesses to reopen Friday.

Viejas Casino & Resort was at least the second tribal casino to open and was able to do so because tribes are sovereign authorities and not subject to state and local restrictions on operations during the pandemic.

Santa Clara County's public health officer said new coronavirus cases were stable or decreasing and the home of Silicon Valley, which had been the lone regional holdout last week, would join neighboring counties to allow small retail stores to offer curbside pickup and sales.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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Taxin reported from Orange County. Associated Press writers Julie Watson and Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Janie Har in San Francisco and John Antczak and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this story.