The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California reverses reopening as coronavirus cases spike

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The re-closing of California has begun in earnest amid an alarming spike in the past two weeks of new coronavirus infections. Now nearly three in four Californians live in counties that have been ordered to reverse their economic reopening or that have been recommended to do so.

The whipsaw nature of the state’s regulations, praised for being prescient in March, has left many in the nation’s most populous state confused, angry and worried that the virus is spreading faster than it can be contained.

New infections have spread since Memorial Day from long-postponed backyard barbecues and bars, reopened in most counties fewer than two weeks ago. The number of infections has reached 223,000 in the state. About half are concentrated in Los Angeles County, which surpassed 100,000 cases earlier this week.

“Whether we continue on this recovery journey is debatable,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said in his Monday evening briefing to the city. “Covid-19 is taking control, and we need to take control back. ”

Garcetti, who called the next two weeks critical in containing the virus’s spread, spoke hours after Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous, reported 3,643 new cases. It was a single-day record that health officials warned could swamp hospitals and intensive care units if not contained quickly.

The rise marks a grim reversal for California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) imposed the country’s first statewide stay-at-home order on March 19, a politically risky move at the time but one that signaled a resolve to control the virus early as it exploded on the East Coast.

Garcetti had imposed a stay-at-home order for Los Angeles hours before Newsom extended it statewide. The step, hard on the local economy, appeared to corral the virus before it took on the proportions that New York City faced at the time.

That has shifted sharply. The mayor began loosening the restrictions incrementally in May and lifted the order for bars and restaurants on June 19, despite signs that the number of new infections had already begun to rise.

Los Angeles County health officials say 500,000 Angelenos filled local bars and restaurants the following day, upending expectations that residents would take the reopening cautiously.

The infection rate across Southern California began rising since Memorial Day weekend, and Los Angeles County officials moved Monday to curtail the public mingling over the July Fourth holiday by closing the county beaches over this coming weekend.

Both Los Angeles and neighboring Riverside County, which reported that its hospitals are at 99 percent of their capacity, were on Newsom’s order Sunday of counties that must close bars to regain control over the virus. He has also reimposed the state’s stay-at-home order for Imperial County along the southern border, which has long had the highest per capita infection rate in the state.

Five other counties were subject to Newsom’s mandate, and eight others were asked by the state to consider closing down bars to stop the virus’s spread.

But at least two of those on the lists — Fresno and Stanislaus counties in the more conservative eastern part of the state — refused to follow the order or recommendation. Newsom has threatened to withhold state economic aid to counties that ignore the mandate or an earlier one ordering residents to wear masks in all indoor and outdoor public areas. A half-dozen county sheriffs have said they would not enforce the mask order.

San Diego County, among the state’s most populous, will close its bars Wednesday despite not being on either list. The county announced its own single-day record — 498 cases — on Monday, and health officials there say the trend is worsening.

Among the biggest fears is the rising hospitalization rate in Los Angeles and other counties, which had expanded hospital capacity months ago with makeshift medical centers in sports arenas and, in Los Angeles, offshore on the USNS Mercy. With the virus seemingly contained, the naval hospital ship departed in May.

Barbara Ferrer, the county public health officer, said this week that county hospitalizations have increased 27 percent over the past two weeks. She said the virus could become “a runaway train unless we put the brakes on it. ”

“This is a time to hunker down, back in your home, whenever possible,” she said.