A few more Orange County business sectors can reopen after state public health officials quietly lifted the regional shutdown order for Southern California after estimating the region’s intensive care units should be thinning out soon. 

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That means nail salons, barber shops, campgrounds and outdoor dining at restaurants can reopen again. 

Hotels can also begin taking non-essential travel reservations again. 

State officials quietly lifted the regional order through a Monday news release. 

Normally, Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a news conference and fields a few questions from reporters when substantial decisions come from the state. 

At a news conference announced nearly two hours after officials lifted the shutdown, Newsom defended the abrupt move.

Some critics said the order was lifted as a recall effort against Newsom is gaining momentum.

“That’s just complete utter nonsense. So let’s just dispense with that,” Newsom said, responding to a reporter’s questions. 

He also said many businesses couldn’t afford to wait for Newsom to contact legislators and elected officials around the state before lifting the order.

“The question is do we delay making a significant announcement that can help small businesses of all stripes … give some sense of optimism?” Newsom said. “Do we delay that for a long, protracted comprehensive outreach, or do we just move forward with the criteria that’s been well established?” 

The move also comes after a tough couple months for Orange County and Southern California — when the region essentially ran out of ICU beds for coronavirus patients. 

“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly in a Monday news release.

Ghaly, and other state officials, said the orders worked.

“Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front-line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared.”

But there’s been defiance of the order — some restaurants never stopped their dining operations, bars and nightclubs have been operating in an underground fashion and some gyms have remained open. 

The OC Sheriff, along with the county Health Care Agency, took a light-handed enforcement approach using education instead of punitive measures, like fines or suspended licenses. 

While the county may no longer be under the shutdown order, it’s in the most restrictive tier on the state’s four-tiered reopening plan. 

Retailers will be allowed to have 25% of the building’s capacity inside the stores, up from 20%. 

Grocery stores’ limits on people indoors will be pushed from 35% of the building’s maximum capacity to 50%. 

Local epidemiologists criticized the shutdown order as not strong enough because it allowed malls and a host of other non-essential retailers to remain open as virus positivity rates and hospitalizations soared. 

UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin said state officials should’ve shut down more businesses and offer enough financial support to help them remain closed without going underwater, along with bolstering unemployment payment efforts. 

Shin said it would be the best move to prevent widespread death the region has seen over the past month until enough people are vaccinated. 

“What I’d really like to see is a coordinated mandate to lock down much more than we’ve been locking down now, and sufficient financial and economic support to make sure all of us can abide by a really hard lock down. I’m really convinced that’s the only way we can reduce the kind of death and suffering we’re seeing now,” Shin said. 

Since January began, the county Health Care Agency has reported 831 people killed by the virus. 

Those deaths could stretch back for weeks due to reporting issues. 

Hospitalizations have been declining for the past couple of weeks. 

As of Monday, 1,703 people were hospitalized, including 447 in intensive care units. 

The virus has now killed 2,704 people out of 224,618 cases, according to the county Health Care Agency. 

The virus has already killed nearly five times as many people as the flu does on a yearly average.

For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.

Orange County has already surpassed its yearly average 20,000 deaths, with 21,110 people dead as of November, according to the latest available state data.

It’s a difficult virus for the medical community to tackle because some people don’t show any symptoms, yet can still spread it. Others feel slight symptoms, like fatigue and a mild fever.

Others end up in ICUs for days and weeks before making it out, while other people eventually die from the virus.

A new virus variant, that could spread even easier, has also surfaced in Southern California. 

Shin said he’s worried the variant could cause another massive spike in cases. 

“The data that I’m seeing about that variant and other similar variants are not very encouraging. It’s possible that these variants could substantially impact the trajectory. There’s pretty strong data that it has occurred in the UK and South Africa — both places were affected by different variants that have some overlap.”

For more details on the COVID-19 vaccine in Orange County view our Voice of OC information page: http://bit.ly/occovidvaccine.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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