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California relaxes some county criteria for reopening

By KATHLEEN RONAYNE Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom relaxed county reopening criteria on Monday, a move he said will allow most of the state's 58 counties to begin allowing dining in restaurants and other services.

"Bottom line is: People can go at their own pace, and we are empowering our local health directors and county officials that understand their local communities and conditions," Newsom said.

The criteria he outlined applies to counties that want to reopen faster than the state. While retail may open for curbside pickup statewide, restrictions on dining in at restaurants and other services are still in place statewide. Counties can move faster if they win state approval.

A decline in state hospitalizations in the last two weeks, the distribution of more personal protective equipment and the state's increased testing ability are all positive trend lines that allowed the state to relax its criteria, he said. The move comes after large counties, particularly in Southern California, had called the earlier criteria too restrictive and had urged Newsom to relax the guidelines.

Twenty-four counties in mostly rural Northern California already won approval under the old guidance.

The new criteria eliminates requirements that a county have zero deaths and no more than than one case per 10,000 residents over a two-week period. Instead, counties must have no more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents or no higher than an 8% positive rate among people testing for the coronavirus. They also must have no higher than a 5% increase in hospitalizations over a 7-day period or fewer than 20 hospitalizations total over 14 days. The latter will ensure small counties don't get penalized for just one or two extra hospitalizations. 

Other criteria on hospital capacity, testing and tracing remain in place. 

The Democratic governor didn't say which five counties he expected would not meet his criteria, though he pointed to Los Angeles, Kings and Tulare County as those facing challenges. He cited Tulare due to cases at skilled nursing facilities and Kings due to cases at meat packing plants. 

Los Angeles County, the state's most populous and with the most coronavirus cases, faces broader challenges, he said.

"Just because we're creating the capacity and the availability to move into Phase 2 doesn't mean that every county is ready," Newsom said. "Los Angeles County, as an example, I imagine will be cautious if that respect."

He also said counties will soon be able to allow shopping in stores and hair salons to reopen. He also suggested professional sports could begin in June without spectators. He said the reopening of churches could begin within weeks. Hair salons and churches in particular have become a flash point in the fight over reopening.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.