Beaches reopen in L.A., but restaurants, malls are a way off

Beachgoers were welcomed along the Los Angeles coast Wednesday, a symbolic milestone in the county’s effort to ease stay-at-home orders implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But even as the county dips its toe into reopening, officials say it will likely be months before life returns to normal for Southern California.

After a six-week closure, L.A.’s coast looks different than it did pre-pandemic. Visitors are not able to picnic, sunbathe or participate in group sports such as volleyball.

Face coverings are required when not in the water, and only active recreation — surfing, running, walking and swimming — is permitted.

“We’re not moving past COVID-19, we’re learning to live with it,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “And we will keep taking measured steps toward a new, safer reality in the days and weeks ahead.”

Health officials in Los Angeles County — a coronavirus hot spot in California with more than 33,000 cases and 1,600 deaths — indicated this week that despite the gradual reopening of public spaces like the beach, aspects of the stay-at-home order could last well into the summer.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that she didn’t see the timeline shortening without “dramatic change to the virus and tools at hand.” She later added that, although the stay-at-home policy would likely remain, some individual restrictions would be “gradually relaxed” under the county’s five-step plan.

Some portions of the local economy began to reopen Friday, with bookstores, clothing stores, flower shops and other retailers offering curbside pickup after weeks-long closures.

“Our hope is that, by using the data, we’d be able to slowly lift restrictions over the next three months,” Ferrer said.

But without widely available testing for COVID-19, or rapid at-home kits that would allow people to test themselves daily, it seems unlikely that the social distancing directives and stay-at-home orders will be completely eased in the region, she said.

Under state guidelines, restaurants and malls are poised to reopen more slowly in urban centers like Los Angeles than in rural sections of the state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that California restaurants and shopping malls could soon reopen in counties that met state standards for testing and reductions in coronavirus cases, but all businesses will have to abide by state guidelines for physical distancing and cleaning regimens.

Under the state plan, counties must have adequate testing and hospital capacity and the ability to trace those who have been in contact with ill people.

Restaurants can reopen for dine-in service in counties certified as meeting those benchmarks, but they should implement changes to guard against spreading the virus. Shopping centers including strip malls and outlet malls will be allowed to reopen with in-store customers in counties certified to have contained COVID-19, while car washes and pet groomers can also resume operating with safeguards.

A Times data analysis last week found most big California counties were not close to meeting Newsom’s standards. The analysis looked at which counties could pass just the first two criteria — no new deaths reported in the last 14 days and no more than one confirmed case per 10,000 residents in that same time period.

Most of California failed that test. In fact, 95% of Californians live in counties that don’t meet that standard, the Times analysis found. Not a single county in Southern California or the San Francisco Bay Area met the criteria.

The state said Tuesday that seven of California’s 58 counties — mostly rural — had been certified as meeting the state’s conditions for additional businesses to reopen: Amador, Butte, El Dorado, Lassen, Nevada, Placer and Shasta.

“There are some unique characteristics in some counties where they are hitting on all cylinders,” Newsom said.

Talks are underway with 27 other counties to discuss whether they can expand the reopenings, the governor said, but he noted that conditions were still too serious in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties to modify the guidelines for resuming business.

Officials in Orange County continue to express frustration with the state‘s more cautious approach. They contend that the economic havoc wreaked by the regulations makes it vital to loosen the rules.

As of Tuesday, Orange County had confirmed 3,602 cases and 77 deaths from COVID-19. When adjusted per 100,000 residents, the county’s documented infection rate is notably lower than that of neighboring urban counties, according to the Los Angeles Times’ coronavirus tracker.

Orange County’s observed mortality rate associated with COVID-19, roughly 2.1%, also is well below the statewide rate of about 4%. But it’s still too high for the county to be given the green light to completely reopen under state standards.

“I think it’s time to open up,” Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel said Tuesday. “Maybe it’s too late. It’s going to be very tough to catch up.”

Times staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.

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