Massive LA County to expand capacity indoors, reopen bars

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Massive Los Angeles County can reopen even more businesses — including outdoor bars that don’t serve food — while expanding how many people are allowed to dine indoors and catch a movie, but won’t do so until next week, officials said Tuesday.

The county of 10 million people was one of several counties, including neighboring Orange County, that moved into the state’s second-least restrictive orange tier amid low coronavirus case rates and increased vaccinations. Half of the state’s nearly 40 million people are now in that tier, which means virus rates are “moderate.”

The new rules allow for expanded activities the following day, but counties can opt to maintain more restrictions. LA County’s public health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday that reopenings and expansions will go into effect Monday, April 5, adding that she wanted to take a more cautious approach given the mix of new variants.

The county is home to a quarter of California’s residents, and it was reporting well over 10,000 new cases and a couple hundred deaths a day during the winter surge. On Tuesday, Ferrer reported 26 additional deaths and 386 new cases as she implored people to continue wearing masks.

“If we wish to maintain these low numbers, it will be essential that each of us not get sloppy,” she said.

Officials in Orange County said restaurants, theaters, museums, churches and other houses of worship can allow people indoors at 50% capacity starting Wednesday. Bars that don’t serve food can operate outdoors, and bowling alleys and card rooms can operate indoors at 25% capacity.

Health officials in California and across the country are urging caution because of a troubling rise in new cases of COVID-19, but aquariums and amusement parks are on track to reopen in California anyway. The state’s mask mandate remains in effect.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that the next few weeks will be critical, given the potential surge.

“At the same time, we are vaccinating more and more people,” he said during a virtual event hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “It’s going to be almost a race between getting people vaccinated, versus avoiding a surge of new cases.”

The typically crowded Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk reopens Thursday, while Universal Studios Hollywood plans to reopen April 16, followed by Disneyland at the end of April and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in May.

Only three counties totaling more than 1 million people — San Joaquin, Merced and Inyo — remain in the state’s most restricted purple tier, where the virus remains widespread. Thirty-six counties are in the state’s red tier, including hard-hit Fresno County, where officials said Tuesday people could dine indoors and visit the movies and museums at 25% capacity starting Wednesday.

Santa Cruz and Alameda also moved to the orange tier Tuesday. Two counties are in the least-restricted yellow tier.

Meanwhile, California is expanding vaccine eligibility to people 50 and older starting Thursday and to all adults on April 15, which could make it harder for people to get appointments even as supply increases.

The San Francisco Bay Area county of Contra Costa announced Tuesday that vaccines are now available for residents 16 and older, saying it has thousands of vaccine appointments available at its community clinics this week because of increased supply from the state and federal governments. The county has about 1.2 million people.

The county recently received extra doses for its federally qualified health centers — a windfall that has not yet benefited all of the state’s counties. Last week, Contra Costa County opened up appointments to people 50 and older.

“Governor Gavin Newsom announced last week that his goal was to move the state quickly through the eligibility tiers,” said Contra Costa County Health Director Anna Roth. “We agree and applaud this goal. We have appointments to fill. By expanding eligibility now, we can ensure that no appointments go unused.”

More than 6 million people in the state are fully inoculated and more than 17 million doses have been administered.

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This story has been corrected to show that the orange tier is the second-least restricted tier, and not the third-least restricted tier.

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Har reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.