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LA County Will Follow State In Lifting Stay-At-Home Order, Outdoor Dining Can Reopen

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California’s regional stay-at-home orders have been lifted, with most counties returning to the strictest tier in the state’s color-coded COVID-19 reopening plan, according to the Department of Public Health. However, individual counties can still keep in place, or impose, stricter regulations.

Today, L.A. County Public Health officials said the county will align with the state, starting later this week. That means outdoor dining can re-open, as well as limited capacity for spa services such as nail salons.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis said the decision will "provide some small businesses with relief."

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Solis warned, however, that the change doesn't mean things are going back to normal:

"Please don't take this news to mean that you can return to life normalcy. Masks, physical distancing and limiting activities are still key to getting out of this pandemic, until we can get everybody vaccinated. We are not in the clear, we're still in the purple tier, which is the most restrictive."

The full information for the purple tier is available here.Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties said they would also move into the purple tier, following the state's lead.

Here's a cheat sheet to the new guidelines:

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County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer echoed Solis, saying even though the county's COVID-19 numbers are showing some signs of improvement, that doesn't mean residents and businesses can let their guard down.

"If we're not careful, our metrics that are headed in the right direction will quickly change," she said.

The county's average positivity rate dropped from 20% at the beginning of the year to just under 13% this week, said Ferrer, and hospitalizations have also declined, dipping to 6,300 (they were at 8,000 at New Year's.)

Despite the good news, L.A.'s COVID numbers are still much higher than they ever were before this latest surge. Half of all hospital beds in L.A. are currently filled with COVID-19 patients. COVID patients also make up three quarters of those currently being treated in intensive care units.

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Meanwhile, people who need elective surgeries, like knee or hip replacements, will have to wait because most hospitals in the county don’t have enough staff to treat them.

Ferrer also warned that the number of daily deaths from the virus will likely remain very high for the next few weeks.

BACKGROUND

The lifted stay-at-home order means businesses such as gyms and restaurants can reopen outdoor service, and hair and nail salons can reopen with modifications.

Prior to today's press conference, county supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger said they support reopening outdoor dining, personal services and other industries.

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Speaking on Monday morning after the state announcement but before the county's update, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he didn't expect activities such as outdoor dining to resume.

"[Our case count] is still very high historically, [we] still [have] six to seven times more hospitalizations than what we had just a month and a half ago," he said, admitting that things are getting better, albeit slowly. "So if that [downward trend] continues to accelerate, whether it's fewer tests being required, fewer cases, a lower positivity rate, fewer hospitalizations — we could see that accelerate, but I don't expect it to happen today."

L.A. County suspended outdoor dining in late November, and while that restriction was set to expire in mid-December, it was also banned under the state stay-at-home order.

CRITICISM

State health officials today said the decision to lift restrictions came after four-week projections show ICU capacity climbing back up to 15%.

But Dr. Kimberly Shriner from Huntington Hospital in Pasadena told KPCC's AirTalk that she is concerned about the calculation, which is now more complex, given the new variant that has been found in Southern California.

"We are concerned about some of the variant issues that might be circulating now -- viruses that have mutated a little bit and changed their ability to infect other people," she said. "So the risk is perhaps higher when you open things up [now] than it was, let's say, back during the summer or certainly back in March and April."

Researchers are still trying to determine if the new variant is more infectious than the dominant strain.

Professor Anne Rimoin, an infectious disease specialist at UCLA, advised caution during her appearance on KPCC's Take Two.

“When we see more contagious variants circulating, any breach in protocol carries more risk," she said. "Everyone needs to take this into consideration and remember that just because you can do something, doesn’t you should do something.”

Rimoin said if you're going to engage in newly reopened activities, be vigilant about what kind of mask you're wearing.

“I really encourage people to think about PPE that they have and a wear it well. Data shows that regular cloth mask has about 50% efficacy at preventing spread of this virus," she said. "If you put two masks on, it can take it up to 75 percent."