Orange County on verge of more business, school reopenings as COVID-19 numbers improve

Orange County is on track to move into the state's red coronavirus tier early next week, which could allow for more indoor operations to resume and for schools in the county to be eligible to reopen.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2020
OC on verge of moving to red tier as COVID-19 numbers improve
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Orange County is on track to move into the state's red coronavirus tier early next week.

Orange County is on track to move into the state's red coronavirus tier early next week, which could allow for more indoor operations to resume and for schools in the county to be eligible to reopen.

The county falls within the state's new "purple tier'' of counties for COVID-19, the worst level, but is on the verge of being upgraded to the next tier, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said Friday after Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the new rating program.

"We are very close based on the last two weeks of data to almost be moving into red,'' said Bartlett, who is also president of the California State Association of Counties.

RELATED: California reopening: Here's what's open or closed in LA, OC, IE, VC

County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service on Monday that state officials initially indicated on Friday that Orange County -- if trends continued -- would be allowed to reopen all schools as of Sept. 8 but later said that is not yet set in stone.

Monday was the county's ninth day off the state's monitoring list.

Orange County, along with several other counties that were off the watch list, were initially thought to be grandfathered in under the old system, Kim said. Under the new system, the county would have had to wait another two weeks after moving into another tier.

"There are three different scenarios,'' Kim said.

If the county can move up to the next level -- the red tier -- then schools would be eligible to reopen for in-person instruction two weeks later. Or the county could get credit for the time spent off the watch list and have to wait another week or schools could reopen by Sept. 8, Kim said.

"I don't think it will be hard to win the argument that we should get credit for days off the list,'' Kim said, adding the question will be how much longer the county would have to wait.

RELATED: Gov. Newsom ditches county watch list, announces new 4-tier reopening framework

"We continue to look better, we're making gradual improvements and we expect -- barring anything unusual -- that the trend would remain level and we would be one of the counties permitted to go to tier two, the red tier,'' Kim said. "We're hopeful the state will give us credit for being off the list before the new criteria was released, but we won't know that until we hear back from the state.''

Schools in the county are still able to apply for kindergarten through sixth grade waivers. Most of the waiver applications are coming from secular and other private schools, Kim said.

The new system unveiled Friday by Newsom focuses more on case and positivity rates because of breakthroughs in testing and the ability to get results more quickly, which allows public health professionals to more efficiently quarantine and address hot spots and surges. Before, state officials focused on hospitalization and intensive-care unit beds because they wanted to be prepared for any surges that could hasten more deaths.

"It actually encourages more testing and contact tracing,'' Bartlett said of the new system.

The new system is also more fair to higher-population counties because the overall case counts were being held against them and now officials are focusing more on present-day case counts, she said.

RELATED: COVID Orange County update: Positivity rate remains below state threshold

The state also includes a "seven-day lag'' as a failsafe to account for slower laboratories. But the new system also focuses on a third criterion beyond case and positivity rates, and that is still vague, Bartlett said.

"When they define the third criteria more, that should bring more clarity to the counties on how they can operate within the guidelines, and which business sectors can open and to what capacity,'' Bartlett said.

Hair salons and indoor malls at 25% capacity were allowed to reopen Monday statewide.

"Soon as I heard they were opening, I called her up and said, 'Can you get me in this morning, please?" one woman said at a hair salon at the South Coast Plaza.

The giant mall reopened Monday after closing its doors in mid-March.

RELATED: South Coast Plaza reopens following monthslong closure amid COVID-19

"Online shopping just wasn't cutting it, so this is great," another woman said.

Business owners are stil concerned with long-term impacts.

"We're not talking about Republicans, Democrats, I'm talking about both sides. Make the right decisions for the business owners, because as you know most of our businesses will close down permanently and they're not coming back," one business owner said.

If Orange County's trends continue and it makes it into the red tier, then indoor dining, for example, could be added at 25% capacity after next week, she said.

City News Service contributed to this report.