Orange County may be able to reopen more businesses soon as new coronavirus guidelines are expected to be released by state health officials next week.
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“We have been working on drafts back and forth not only with our state partners but with our local partners … We’ll be making public next week — the details of our public strategies as it relates to reopening when we see the data stabilize based on new criteria, new conditions that we’re setting forth,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Wednesday news conference.
He said state health officials have been working with local health officers across the state on creating the new reopening guidelines.
Wednesday’s announcement comes after OC has been on the state watchlist for its virus cases and hospitalizations since late June. Business reopenings are severely limited for counties on the state watchlist, which effectively closed scores of businesses by banning indoor operations at movie theaters, restaurants, malls, gyms, barber shops, nail salons and hair salons.
Although some businesses — like hair and nail salons — have been able to move their businesses outside.
UC Irvine assistant professor, Dr. Daniel Chow, said cases spiked after the first reopenings in late May and June.
“One of the things that we did see is when we reopened is how quickly cases have soared,” Chow said in a Tuesday phone interview. “Overall, things are improving, however it’s important to remember to remain vigilant.”
Chow’s colleague, Dr. Saahir Khan, said officials need to be mindful of ventilation systems when reopening decisions are made.
“I think, honestly, the most important issue is ventilation. So a movie theater would be difficult because it’s quite a lot of people — even at half or one-quarter capacity — in a relatively enclosed space. Some restaurants may be able to have better ventilation, particularly the ones that have a large opening in the front or good airflow from the outside,” Khan said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Khan, who treats virus patients at UCI Medical Center in Orange, said air conditioning systems can carry virus droplets and help spread the disease indoors.
He also said reopenings should be done in two to three-week intervals so experts can monitor for any potential case spikes.
Newsom said officials plan on rolling out criteria that calls for phased-in reopenings, unlike the first wave of reopenings which caused virus spikes in OC and throughout the state.
“We do anticipate having a period of process/protocols that are put in place that have a time element that allows us the epidata that gives us more confidence in the background spread — the community spread of this disease,” said Newsom, in response to Voice of OC’s questions.
He said a period of two to three weeks between business reopenings will be part of the updated plans, following discussions with epidemiologists nationwide, public health experts and local health officials.
“So we’re in the process of distilling … all of that back and forth, that engagement, that commentary and putting that into our guidelines and protocols. And, again, working with local health officials to make them a little bit more precise and get all of their feedback on the unique conditions in Orange County, Ventura County, LA county, San Diego County, any county in this state,” Newsom said.
UCI epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said officials need to move very slowly on reopening businesses, based on the case spikes caused by the first wave of reopenings.
“We’ve been burned once before and I think the average person is going to get whiplash at some point with what’s open and what’s not because it’s been changing so much. We just need to be very deliberate about opening anything at this point,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Noymer, who also specializes in public health, said officials need to consider which type of businesses reopen also.
“The overall sort of vibe is caution is the word of the day,” he said. “I can’t tell you that there’s this many people in Orange County that got sick because of shopping malls — nobody can. But in general, the more we close down, the more we will spread out this curve. I mean bending this curve will really spread out the curve. There’s no breaking the curve unless you get a vaccine.”
Since the pandemic hit OC in March, the virus has killed 833 people out of 44,507 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Noymer said he expects the county to hit 1,000 deaths by the first week of September. He said OC could hit 2,000 deaths sometime in late November or early December, depending on how reopenings are handled and the public health measures taken.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 people annually.
As of Wednesday, there were 419 people hospitalized, including 124 in intensive care units.
Nearly 566,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
“Just looking at the county numbers and overall in California, it just looks like everything is looking good,” Chow said. “I would just say that when we do reopen things, is that when people are in stores and out, they remember to distance physically and keep their masks on and practice good hygiene.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data: