California businesses seen as presenting less risk of spreading the coronavirus could open in the near future under a plan Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled Tuesday, the first of what he suggested were several slow steps toward easing the statewide shutdown order.
“We believe we are weeks, not months, away from making meaningful modifications” in the current restrictions, Newsom said.
But Newsom’s announcement of a four-phase plan did not come with a guaranteed timetable. He said while current public health indicators such as hospitalizations and testing capacity look promising, additional progress needs to be made toward slowing the spread of the virus.
“Politics will not drive our decision-making. Protests won’t drive our decision-making. Political pressure will not drive our decision- making,” he said.
The plan he presented Tuesday envisions four distinct phases for ending the shutdown, each with several subjective components reflecting that uncertainty. The governor said the state is currently in the first phase, marked by ongoing efforts to provide a financial safety net for low-wage earners who might otherwise work when sick and encouraging the use of face coverings by residents when in places where they cannot practice safe physical distancing.
The second phase, he said, would allow select businesses to reopen in communities across California. Those would be deemed “lower risk” and include more curbside options for retail locations, manufacturing sites and small businesses with few in-person customers. The change also would loosen limits on access to public spaces, probably including some parks.
In a lengthy online presentation of the new plan, Newsom said he recognized the economic pain from the stay-at-home order but insisted there was still no way to set a date for loosening that directive.
“We need to protect not just the business community but customers of those businesses. It’s one thing to open a business. But if there’s no demand, it’s a false promise,” he said.
Newsom’s second phase, notably, might include a plan for allowing some K-12 schools to either offer summer programs or consider an earlier start to the new academic year in order to make up some of the lost educational opportunities. It also would allow more child care facilities to resume operations.
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The guidelines would require businesses seeking to reopen to keep as many people as possible working from home. And it envisions that employers must be able to ensure that they have established safe workplace conditions.
But the proposal does not offer information on who enforces the rules or how enforcement will take place. The statewide order issued by the governor last month has largely relied on local government officials to ensure compliance.
Key to the change would be adequate protections for places such as skilled nursing facilities and “congregate” settings, including jails and prisons. The plan requires that officials in the state’s 58 counties have the ability to perform robust contact tracing to ensure they can track potential spread of the coronavirus.
Graham Knaus, executive director of the California Association of Counties, said that work requires adequate funding. “If county public health departments lack funding to access testing or coordinate trained workers, it will be nearly impossible to meet key indicators to reopen California, much
less track and isolate cases as restrictions are lifted,” he said.
The governor’s embrace of a more methodical plan for easing the stay-at-home mandate comes amid mounting pressure from some local officials to reopen the state sooner rather than later. Those pleas for a more specific timetable, plus images of Californians flocking to the beaches over the weekend, stand in contrast to reports that some areas — most notably, Los Angeles County — are still struggling to get a handle on the public health crisis.
Newsom acknowledged the balancing act that lies ahead, insisting that not all regions of the state would be allowed to loosen the shutdown rules at the same time. Two additional phases are envisioned in his new plan, including reopening hair salons and personal care businesses and eventually allowing large gatherings such as sporting events. But no certainty was provided that those phases could arrive anytime soon.
Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said employers need a more detailed list of the kinds of companies that can reopen in each phase. He said business owners may be disappointed, too, with the lack of details about what lies ahead.
“The governor started talking about the economy today, but we really didn’t learn all that much,” Lapsley said. “Other states are way ahead of us in terms of having much more detailed plans.”
He also questioned why the governor isn’t taking an aggressive approach to protect people 65 and older while allowing others to return to work more quickly. “We have to ensure that we protect the public health and protect the financial well-being at the same time,” he said. “We need to be on a more detailed path for that.”
Newsom’s announcement comes after several governors across the country said they plan to ease stay-at-home orders in the days and weeks ahead. Newsom, meanwhile, has sought to link California’s approach to a less restrictive policy to those crafted by governors in neighboring states. This month, he and his counterparts in Washington and Oregon announced “a regional pact to recovery” from the coronavirus crisis and agreed to work together to develop a plan to lift restrictions on daily life and reopen economies along the West Coast. Nevada and Colorado on Monday announced they would join the regional pact.
Still, local officials across California have barraged Newsom with requests to go their own way. On Monday, a bipartisan group of California lawmakers, mayors and other elected officials from six counties asked to ease the restrictions and start the process of reopening their economies.
“We believe that the local public health data, in addition to our area’s ability to continue monitoring cases, should allow our counties to soon begin a science-based, thoughtful reopening of our economy, consistent with national guidelines, which would allow our residents to get back to work,” the letter to Newsom stated.
Last week, San Luis Obispo County officials said they have bent the coronavirus curve and were beginning to craft their own phased approach to allow some businesses to reopen. That request came just days after Ventura County officials modified a stay-at-home order to permit some businesses to reopen and some gatherings to take place.
Newsom has remained focused on a message of patience. He said Tuesday that long-standing indicators on virus spread and health care preparations are key to what happens next.
“It guides our decision-making and allows us to make determinations,” he said of the indicators. “Dates don’t. But data does.”