Health department allows more businesses to reopen

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — As Los Angeles County’s coronavirus numbers continue to fall and local business activity springs back to life, officials have announced a handful of modifications to the county’s health order that went into effect over the weekend.

Breweries, distilleries and wineries may now reopen for indoor service if food is provided, with attendance limited to 25% of capacity, County Pubic Health Director Barbara Ferrer said March 22.

Those that do not provide a meal may open for outdoor service only with certain restrictions, including reservations and 90-minute time limits for all guests. Guests must be seated at tables before they place their order, and are not permitted to stand or congregate with others, and service for on-site consumption must close by 8 p.m.

Also, limited-service businesses — such as bank and credit union branches, check cashing services, tax preparation, auto repair and dry cleaners — are permitted to conduct indoor operations at 50% of capacity.

Business offices can conduct essential indoor operations at 50% of capacity.

For mental health, support groups and spiritual counseling, the number of in-person participants increases from 10 to 12.

The county is aligning with the state to allow for indoor sports activities for youth and adult recreational leagues, including training, conditioning, contact practice and competition. Those indoor activities must be limited to 10% of occupancy, and observers are not permitted. Players, coaches and staff must undergo regular COVID-19 testing. And leagues must file a site-specific return-to-play plan with the health department 14 days prior to the resumption of indoor activity.

Officials also reported 516 new cases of COVID-19 and nine additional fatalities, though those relatively low numbers may reflect reporting delays from the weekend.

The numbers brought the county’s totals to 1,214,178 cases and 22,806 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the county health department.

The number of county residents hospitalized with the virus continued to decline, dropping from 750 Sunday to 713, with the number of those patients in intensive care declining from 191 to 181, according to state figures.

However, officials noted a rise in transmission rate based on hospitalization data, with a rate of .93 at the beginning of March, higher than the .87 recorded one week earlier.

“Because the uncertainty in the estimated transmission number … it is uncertain if the number of hospitalizations will continue to decrease, be stable, or start to increase,” the department said.

Spring officially began this past weekend,” Ferrer said. “Like so many of you, I am eagerly awaiting warmer weather and clearer skies.

“We have a beautiful county, and I encourage you all to enjoy everything it has to offer while remaining masked and physically distanced. For recreational travelers and residents coming to L.A. County, please note, you are required to self-quarantine for 10 days after you return from out of state or out of country travel to protect our community from inadvertent transmission of the virus from travelers. We strongly recommend that those who traveled and during their travels were in crowds, exposed to unmasked individuals in close proximity, or attended gatherings, get tested on their return.”

Ferrer also said the county was entering into a memorandum of understanding with the state and Blue Shield for the giant health insurance company to oversee COVID-19 vaccination efforts. She stressed that the county’s vaccination providers and overall distribution strategy would remain the same, but would now be coordinated with Blue Shield, allowing for more data dashboards among other improvements.

Ferrer added that public schools in the county would be permitted to align with the state’s updated guidelines that call for three feet of distance between student desks, not the six feet previously called for. Individual districts can choose to retain the six-feet standard, though — something that Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner has opted for.

Officials stress that the three-feet guidance applies only to schools, and only to student desks.

It’s specifically in the classroom,” Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said last week. “So what I don’t want folks to do is say, ‘Well, gee, three feet is fine virtually anywhere.’ That’s definitely not the case. It was very specific in their guidelines, three feet in the classroom — elementary, middle and high school classrooms — but making sure everybody is wearing face masks all the time and that the classes are cohorting.”

Ferrer said county officials saw a slight decrease last week in transmission of the B117 COVID-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom. She said vaccination efforts are holding at skilled-nursing and assisted-living facilities, and she was confident that even if new variants of the virus began spreading faster, those facilities would not see outbreaks close to the level they saw last spring.

On the vaccination front, officials said doses at county-run sites would be limited to second doses this week due to supply shortages.

The county crossed the milestone of administering 3 million doses last week, and its science officer said planning is under way for an anticipated dramatic increase in vaccine supply in hopes of eventually doling out 1 million doses per week.

The county currently has the capability of administering about 630,000 doses per week, but due to limited supply, only about 300,000 to 350,000 doses are actually being administered per week.

The county moved into the red tier of the state’s four-tier COVID-19 reopening framework last week along with the rest of the Southland, allowing for increased business activity, including the limited reopening of movie theaters. Theme parks can reopen with limited attendance beginning April 1.