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Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Cameron VentiGriffith Observatory

California is reopening more slowly this time around according to Newsom’s new framework

Meet the new four-tier system for reopening.

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano

Remember when everything in California was closed in the spring? And then a whole bunch of stuff fully reopened in pretty quick succession? That’s not going to happen again according to a framework released by the state.

On Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled a new reopening plan that divides counties into four color-coded tiers of coronavirus risk levels. To move between those tiers, counties will be following a new set of guidelines that Newsom describes as statewide, simple, slow and stringent.

All counties in the state will now have their risk levels labeled as widespread (purple), substantial (red), moderate (orange) or minimal (yellow). Purple corresponds to the state’s old watch list, which reversed reopenings in most counties; Los Angeles currently counts itself among the 87% of counties that are purple. To move between the tiers, the state will monitor just two metrics (as opposed to six before) that will dictate whether a county can move forward: the number of daily new cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests.

Rather than a fully-open or fully-closed situation, each tier will gradually ease restrictions and add in things like limited-capacity indoor service in some industries. The state used museums as an example: Purple means outdoor-only operations, red adds indoor activities back in at 25% capacity, orange increases that to 50% and yellow would mean that museums could generally be open indoors with some modifications. Similarly for restaurants, indoor dining would start with 25% capacity at red and move up to 50%, the previous capacity limit. Meanwhile, movie theaters could reopen at 25% if a county reaches the red tier; previously, theaters across the entire state had been ordered to close. Newsom says the new guidelines are available on the state website, but he notes that amusement parks like Disneyland aren’t currently included in that guidance—those are still forthcoming, and Newsom said he’d be meeting with some of those stakeholders later in the day on Friday.

It’s a bit much to take in at first, so we’ll use Los Angeles County as an example to try to make things clearer: L.A is currently purple. To move forward, L.A. needs to meet the requirements for red (fewer cases and positive tests) for two weeks. But—and this is where this new plan greatly differs from the first reopening attempts—L.A. would have to wait at least three weeks before it could progress further through the tiers. And even if L.A. were to suddenly meet the requirements for yellow, counties can only move forward one tier at a time. On the other hand, if L.A. were to meet the requirements to move to red, but then slip behind on those requirements for two weeks, it would be forced to move back to purple. There’s also what Newsom has dubbed an “emergency brake” in place if areas like hospitalizations become concerning.

Starting September 8, the state will provide weekly updates on these tiers. You’ll be able to go to the state website, select a county and then select an industry to see to what degree it’s been able to reopen. But that’s just the state’s guidance: Counties still have the ability to be more stringent than what the state requires.

Under the old system, California monitored six metrics for each county, including testing, transmission and hospitalization rates, as well as hospital equipment capacity. If a county slipped behind on any of those metrics for more than three days, it was placed on a watch list (as recently as mid-August, more than 90% of Californians were living in a county on this list). If it met those thresholds for three days, a county was taken off that list (and if it could do so for 14 days, it would be able to resume in-person instruction at schools).

In late June, that list started to become more than just a slap on the wrist: Newsom ordered Los Angeles and six other counties on the watch list to shut down bars. That mandate expanded statewide a few days later, and the growing number of counties on the list were also required to close indoor operations at restaurants, wineries, tasting rooms, movie theaters, family entertainment centers, zoos, museums and cardrooms. (The restrictions were intended to last for “at least three weeks” and, well, here we are two months later.) Yet again, those measures were expanded statewide on July 13, and counties on the watch list were also required to cease indoor service at gyms, hair salons, barbershops, tattoo shops, nail salons, massage studios, malls, offices for non-critical sectors and houses of worship. Most importantly regarding today’s news, counties who had managed to come off the watch list couldn’t reopen these sectors closed by the July 13 order until the state issued new guidance.

L.A. still isn’t off the watch list—or what we’d now call the purple tier—but it’s getting close. This week, L.A. County Department of Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said that the county had met five of the state’s six indicators to get off the list; L.A.’s case rate per 100,000 residents has fallen to 198, but that’s still above the 100 person threshold. The new four-tier system looks at daily case numbers per 100,000, but Newsom notes that the new rate (7 daily per 100,000) roughly equates to the old two-week averages.

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