Orange County continues to see some coronavirus case bumps, which are preventing it from allowing more people inside already open businesses and reopening a few more as unemployment remains high.
“Our data shows that Orange County will continue another week in the red tier,” said Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, Director of the OC Health Care Agency’s Public Health Services team, at a Thursday news conference.
This means the county won’t be able to reopen bars for outdoor operations and allow more people into restaurants, churches, gyms, movie theaters and malls as the county remains in the Red Tier, or Tier Two. Bowling alleys also remain closed.
“Although our testing positivity remains consistent with the threshold of Orange Tier at 3.2, our case rates remain in the Red Tier at 4.6 and the health equity metric at 5.6,” Bredehoft said.
In order to advance to the Orange Tier, OC needs to reduce its case rate to less than 4 and get the health equity metric, which is the positivity rate in the county’s poorest neighborhoods, to less than 5.2 percent.
The new case bumps come as a potential second wave looms for Orange County.
“I think that we are all anticipating a potential increase in numbers of cases simply because we are entering cold and flu season … as it gets colder people go inside and crowd more often,” said Dr. Matt Zahn, Medical Director for Orange County Health Care Agency’s Communicable Disease Control Division, at Thursday’s news conference.
Yet that outcome can be mitigated if not prevented altogether, as long as people continue to wear masks and not gather in large groups, Zahn said.
“We really shouldn’t treat this as a done deal,” he said. “If we keep doing the smart things we’ve been doing over time, there’s no reason this has to happen.”
But UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said he anticipates a second wave.
“I’m expecting things to go up in the winter,” he said. “We had this big wave in the summertime, in June/July. everyone remembers that. But that’s not the epidemic. This epidemic is going to have waves — plural.”
Zahn said the county’s hospitalizations are holding steady.
“We’ve really been sort of flat as a community for the past few weeks,” Zahn said.
But, he said the situation can change.
“So the fact that we have remained on a flat trajectory in a sense is good, on the other hand … this virus is directional. You tend to eventually go up and you tend to eventually go down,” Zahn said.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,447 people out of 58,725 confirmed cases.
Noymer said he expects 2,000 virus deaths by early next year.
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 OC residents annually.
As of Monday, 162 people were hospitalized, including 59 in intensive care units.
Meanwhile, OC’s economy continues to take a beating from the pandemic.
California State University, Fullerton economists Anil Puri and Mira Farka said the situation is worse than the Great Recession because of the immediate job losses from the business shutdowns during the beginning of the pandemic.
“This was unprecedented. The closest example is the Great Recession, but even that episode pales in comparison. Back then the county’s unemployment rate rose to 10.1%, a historic postwar high, though the increase was a lot more gradual and the subsequent decline a lot slower,” the two economists found in a report issued last week.
Many of those jobs haven’t come back.
“All told, in a span of five weeks, a total of 267,000 jobs – a full 16% of employment – were wiped out from employment rolls by June compared to February. And though the employment picture has improved materially since then, there were still 180,000 fewer employed workers in August compared to pre-pandemic levels,” Puri and Farka wrote.
The pandemic threw a wrench into economic forecasting.
“To compound the usual challenges of forecasting, this year’s pandemic and the resulting sudden halt in economic activity has thrown most statistical estimation models in disarray. These models rely on historical patterns of data, but the pandemic is so far out of the normal range that they can no longer be the basis of reasonable forecasts for the near term,” the economists wrote.
Unemployment is hovering around 9 percent, according to a report from the state’s Employment Development Department.
“We anticipate that it will take up to the end of 2022 for employment levels to approximate those at the beginning of 2020. We expect Orange County to lose payroll jobs at a rate of -7.5% in 2020 and then gain jobs at rates of 3.7% in 2021 and 1.7% in 2022,” Puri and Farka wrote.
Leisure and hospitality industry employment — hotels and theme parks — is down roughly 30 percent, according to the report.
Disney’s flagship theme park likely remains closed until next summer when OC could hit the least restrictive tier, a move county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau doesn’t expect to happen until then.
Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock blasted the new state guidelines in a news release last Tuesday from Reopen OC Now, which is a group aimed at reopening more businesses.
“We have proven that we can responsibly reopen, with science-based health and safety protocols strictly enforced at our theme park properties around the world. Nevertheless, the State of California continues to ignore this fact, instead mandating arbitrary guidelines that it knows are unworkable and that hold us to a standard vastly different from other reopened businesses and state-operated facilities,” Potrock said.
The Cal State Fullerton economists found resort workers were hit the hardest in OC.
“The real carnage, however, can be seen in Leisure and Hospitality, whose employment rolls shrunk from a February high of 227,500 to 123,400. This is a jaw-dropping 104,000 decline, or 46%. Though employment has recovered somewhat as of August, rising to 156,000, it is still more than 30% below its pre-pandemic peak,” Puri and Farka wrote.
In a Friday news release, Puri said Disneyland’s closure is hitting OC hard.
“If Disneyland remains closed for one year (March 2020 to March 2021) Orange County is expected to lose 33,200 jobs and $3.4 billion in revenue. Southern California would lose 46,100 jobs and about $5 billion. These figures do not include lost tax revenue for cities such as Anaheim,” Puri said.
Yet there’ also questions over how much of an economic impact Disneyland’s reopening will have because the tourism industry has taken a big hit.
According to Airlines for America, an industry lobbyist group, demand for air travel has been significantly reduced, with almost half the number of U.S. flights as there was a year ago.
UC Irvine economist Ami Glazer said that means people won’t be flying out to Disneyland, if it reopens, and staying in nearby hotels, generating hotel tax and sales tax revenues for Anaheim and other cities.
“If Disneyland does open it’s not going to have a huge effect. And we know that from Disney World in Orlando,” Glazer said.