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Tahoe restaurants can open Monday with limited indoor dining under new plan

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Restaurants in El Dorado County can open limited indoor dining on Monday under a new, methodical plan laid out by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

With hopes of preventing another coronavirus surge, Newsom announced a process Friday for reopening that’s more gradual than the first attempt that eventually led him to close many businesses soon after they unlocked their doors. 

“Simple, also slow,” is how the Democratic governor described the new rules.

The four-tiered, color-coded system ranks counties based on the number of virus cases and infection rates. Businesses can add more customers or open more services as their county moves into lower tiers. 

For example, counties in the most restrictive tier — purple — can only allow restaurant dining outside. But in lower red, orange and yellow tiers, they can serve people in indoor dining rooms at reduced capacity.

When the new system takes effect, 38 of the state’s 58 counties, including Los Angeles and nearly every other large county, will begin at purple. Only three rural counties will begin in the yellow phase, the least restrictive. 

El Dorado County is in the red tier, the second most restrictive, but officials are hopeful to move into the less restrictive orange tier within the next week.

“The material impact to El Dorado County, as we currently understand it, is that starting Monday, Aug. 31, restaurants will be able to provide indoor dining at 25% capacity,” said Dr. Nancy Williams, the county’s health officer. “Because we have not been on the state’s monitoring list, our barbershops and nail salons have already been allowed to operate indoors, with modifications. While the state map shows El Dorado County in the ‘red’ tier and the criteria used to determine the color tier indicates the less restrictive ‘orange’ tier, we believe it is a result of the color being determined from numbers from 14 days ago while the numbers shown on the map are current. We tentatively believe that because El Dorado County was at the newly-created red tier a week ago, we may be able to move to the orange tier in a week assuming our number of cases and percent of positivity remain in the orange tier.”

Williams added that officials are waiting on confirmation from the state as to when the county can move from the red to orange tier.

There is no stage established for the return of live event audiences at professional sports and theater and concert venues.

“We don’t put a green (tier) because we don’t believe that there’s a green light that says go back to the way things were or back to a pre-pandemic mindset,” Newsom said.

Counties also can keep stricter rules in place than the state allows — and that’s what Los Angeles County officials may do. 

LA is the largest county, with 10 million residents, and has had a disproportionately high percentage of the state’s virus cases and deaths. In a tweet, its health department said it was keeping its health order in place that shuttered indoor malls and salons until it had more time to review the state system.

California imposed the nation’s first statewide shutdown order on March 19. When cases plateaued in May Newsom started to reopen the state and by mid-June virtually all businesses were operating. But cases started rising and in early July Newsom forced bars, indoor restaurants, gyms, nail salons and many other businesses to close or drastically limit their operations. Religious services could only be held outdoors. 

California has the most confirmed virus cases in the nation, with nearly 700,000, and the third-most deaths — 12,690. But since the closures last month, the average number of daily cases has been falling along with the infection rate and hospitalizations, which peaked at 7,170 on July 21 and have since dropped to about 4,200.

The improving numbers prompted Newsom’s action and several epidemiologists praised the new approach as having more nuance than the black-and-white system used before that dictated what counties could do based on whether they were on a state watch list. They also said it’s smart to make counties stay within a tier for at least three weeks, giving officials time to see the consequences of reopening. 

“To avoid a big outbreak this fall I think these kinds of prudent moves are truly essential,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. 

Counties will move through the system based on their rate of coronavirus cases and the percentage of positive tests. Previously, the state used several other metrics, like hospitalizations and testing capacity, to determine whether counties could reopen. Those metrics will still be used to help determine whether the state needs to take a step back.

Counties must be within a tier for three weeks and hit the metrics of the next lowest tier for two weeks before they can move. The state will now report virus statistics, such as case numbers, on a weekly basis.

“We’re going to be more stubborn this time and have a mandatory wait time between moves,” Newsom said.

Business groups weren’t cheering the new guidelines. The California Restaurant Association said the fact that restaurants won’t be able to serve more than 50% of their total capacity in any tier will force already suffering businesses to close for good.

“Restaurants cannot sustain themselves or their employees when they operate with strict capacity limits, which means the state should long ago have crafted a comprehensive aid package to help these small businesses hibernate,” said Jot Condie, chief executive officer of the association.

The guidelines came with an acknowledgement from Newsom that a return to normal isn’t on the table until a vaccine is available or the virus is otherwise drastically curbed. The least restrictive tier — yellow — only allows churches, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters to open at 50% capacity. 

To reach that tier, counties must have less than one new coronavirus case per 100,000 people each day and less than 2% of tests come back positive. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report


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