Nearly 1M cases. A 4.2% positivity rate. ‘High’ COVID-19 numbers force California to roll back reopening plans.

USA World

LOS ANGELES – It took months, but Ruth Henricks was finally reaching the point in which business at her San Diego restaurant was closing in on levels unseen since before the coronavirus struck.

Then came the announcement this week that San Diego County was being forced back to the most severe of four color-coded levels, and now Henricks is worried anew about how to manage The Huddle diner.

“How can you plan ahead when you don’t know from week to week whether you are going to be open or closed or whatever?” she said.

Her quandary is being faced throughout the state after a massive U-turn in the effort to fully reopen California.

Eleven counties were ordered this week to drop a notch on the state’s tiered reopening schedule. San Diego and two other counties, Sacramento and Stanislaus, join Los Angeles County on the lowest rung of the four-step ladder. At the bottom, restrictions include no indoor dining at restaurants or indoor church services.

Outdoor diners sit across the window from people sitting inside at Flores restaurant in San Francisco on Nov. 10. The city, which has the lowest coronavirus case rates among California’s major cities, voluntarily imposed new restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining.

The state is seeing a boost in COVID-19, like much of the rest of the country, as colder weather sets in and people are forced out of the fresh air of being outdoors. As a result, it was the first week in which not a single county was able to advance to a less-restrictive tier, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency.

“A number of counties are experiencing quite a high number of cases,” Ghaly said at a briefing this week.

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The number of tests registering positive for COVID-19 rose to 4.2% over a seven-day period in the latest survey, having not crossed the 4% mark since at least early September, Ghaly said. The rise has accompanied a 31% increase in COVID-related hospitalizations in the last 14 days.

It’s a turnabout in a state that has prided itself on trying to be at the forefront of preventing the spread of the virus: Gavin Newsom was among the first governors to issue a stay-at-home order.

Yet today, California finds itself close to joining Texas as the only states with 1 million cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

San Francisco, which has had fewer COVID-19 cases than other large cities in the state, took the unusual step this week of voluntarily moving itself down to a level that requires indoor dining at restaurants to be curtailed.

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The move will leave many with what few outdoor tables they can manage and take-out food business.

“The problem is the timing of this,” said Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and herself an operator of two eateries. “The weather is changing up here and it’s cold. Nobody wants to sit outside.”

She notes San Francisco’s lower overall COVID-19 cases reflect its more aggressive approach, but it’s coming at a cost of increased stress and mental health implications. And since workers need their jobs for health insurance coverage, facing layoffs worsens their situations.

It’s not just restaurants. In Sacramento, east of San Francisco, the Rev. Bob Balian, pastor of Bayside Midtown Church, had only been able to welcome back worshippers for on-site services about five weeks ago. 

“Now that the new mandate is in effect, we are temporarily ceasing our on-site services, and going back to strictly online,” Balian said. “Some of our people are incredibly disappointed with the change, but most of our people thoroughly understand and support our decision.”

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In San Diego, Henricks is doing her best to save The Huddle, the diner she has owned since 1986. Stopping indoor dining will cut capacity by a quarter to a third, she said.

She said her customers are loyal, and indeed some of them are sticking up for her on Facebook.

“These orders are ridiculous and endanger the lives and livelihoods of small business owners and employees. If Home Depot and other hardware stores can stay open, so should restaurants,” says one post.

But it’s not easy.

“I don’t know what to do,” Henricks said.

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