By Zach Cavanagh

Where California’s counties stand in the state’s four-tiered, color-coded coronavirus monitoring system as of Nov. 16. Graphic: California Department of Public Health

In light of spiking case rates and a surging number of hospitalizations, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state is “pulling an emergency brake” on its coronavirus monitoring system on Monday, Nov. 16.

With the daily new cases per 100,000 nearly doubling in the last week, Orange County moved back to the purple “widespread” tier—the highest risk level of the state’s four-tiered, color-coded coronavirus monitoring system.

Orange County had been in the red “substantial” tier for 10 weeks with red-level metrics, but as part of the emergency brake, counties will move back a tier with just one week of higher numbers, not two weeks as it was when the system was introduced back in September.

Instead of only announcing tiers on a weekly basis every Tuesday, the state began a new protocol on Monday when it came to making announcements as necessary and will likely make than one during the week.

The emergency brake also guides that the county must make its industry changes urgently, instead during the three-day grace period. The Orange County Health Care Agency announced industries needed to comply within 24 hours. With the move back from the red tier to the purple tier, the capacities and operations will be rolled back to tighter restrictions.

In the purple tier, dine-in restaurants and indoor movie theaters may not operate indoors. Outdoor dining and drive-in movies are still allowed. Religious centers, places of worship, weddings, cultural ceremonies, gyms, fitness centers, yoga and dance studios, aquariums, museums and zoos may only operate outdoors.

The indoor capacity for grocery stores (50%) does not change, but libraries and many retailers, including bookstores, clothing stores, sporting goods stores and shopping malls must reduce their indoor capacities to 25%.

Regarding schools, since schools in Orange County already reopened in the less restrictive new tier, they do not have to close upon moving back to the purple tier. School closures are now dictated by district COVID-19 protocols. Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) confirmed it will not have to close schools in a post on CUSD Insider.

“CUSD is fully reopened and our plan includes options to attend in-person school or remain at home 100%,” the CUSD Insider post said. “Families can switch to 100% online at any time by contacting their school site.”

Individual school closures in CUSD would depend on the number of cases and percentage of people that test positive for COVID-19, and after consulting with local health officials.

Nearly all of Southern California is now in the purple tier with 41 of the state’s 58 counties at the highest risk level. Just three weeks ago, only nine California counties were purple.

Chris Aitken, who chairs the San Clemente Downtown Business Association (DBA), called the renewed restrictions a “significant setback for our business sectors downtown,” but encouraged members of the community to continue supporting the restaurants’ open-air dining services.

Though the restaurants and shops have to operate with reduced capacity, they “are still open,” he acknowledged, “to serve your needs. We encourage, as it relates to the DBA, to shop local and support local businesses here in San Clemente.”

Similarly, Burton Brown, chairperson for the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce, said he was “disappointed” by the slide back into the purple tier and the governor’s decision to remove the three-day grace period for businesses to adjust to the changes.

“So, basically everyone has to stop doing business as they have,” Brown said, later adding, “I’m confident in saying that the preemptive decision is disheartening a little bit.”

While acknowledging that the restrictions will hurt the economy, Brown said that the local businesses have shown ingenuity throughout the pandemic and expressed confidence in their ability to adapt to the situation.

“I think our business owners and restaurateurs have ingenuity in doing business,” he said. “They have the wherewithal to know how to do business effectively because we’re, what seven months into this pandemic? It’s going to hurt I’m sure, and again I’m sad that we’re back in purple.”

The move back to the widespread tier comes as the county began to see signs of economic improvement since the early days of the pandemic when unemployment skyrocketed. The three South County cities had reported downward trends in their unemployment rates back in September—the most recent data available.

“You see on the stores or in the restaurants there’s help wanted signs, so the appetite for owners to hire is there,” Brown said. “We don’t know how this is going to necessarily go, but the assumption is it will delay any hiring and trickle down to unemployment that we don’t want to see.”

Newsom reported that the state’s daily new case count has doubled in the past 10 days with the state’s 14-day testing positivity average rising up to 4.6%, a quick jump from the rate of 3.2% on Nov. 2.

Hospitalizations in the state continue to surge with a 48% increase in the last 14 days and a 38% in ICU cases over that span. However, as he did the week before, Newsom praised the preparedness of the state’s healthcare system with COVID-19 hospitalizations taking up only 5% of the state’s capacity and COVID-19 ICU cases occupying 11% of the state capacity.

Newsom acknowledged the state’s positivity average is about half of the nation’s rising seven-day average of 9.8%, but he encouraged Californians to not be misled by the number, as the state’s increases were still alarming.

“We don’t compare ourselves to the average,” Newsom said. “We can do more, and we can do better. You have done more, and you have done better… We will not be deterred in our proactive stance. Our Blueprint (for a Safer Economy) is working how its designed to work.”

As part of the Blueprint, Orange County’s fall back to the purple level was spurred on by a sharp increase in daily new cases per 100,000. The metric jumped to the purple level at 10.8 daily new cases per 100,000 from the red level of 5.6 last week.

The county also saw a rise in its testing positivity as the countywide number jumped up to 4.6% from last week’s 3.3%, but the metric remained in the orange “moderate” level. The county’s health equity positivity rate held at 5.5%, the same as last week’s red-level number.

The countywide testing positivity has been at an orange level since Sept. 8, and the county came close to moving down to orange as the daily case rate dipped to an orange level on Sept. 22. However, the daily case rate ticked back up to the red level on Sept. 29 and remained there through October, until Monday’s reported purple-level spike.

Since being introduced on Oct. 6, the health equity rate has been at a red level. There was a significant drop to 5.6% on Oct. 20, but the rate rose again the next week. The health equity rate measures the testing positivity in county’s low-income and more racially diverse neighborhoods.

To move back down to the red tier, Orange County would need to have its metrics at red levels for two consecutive weeks. If the county’s daily case rate is stable or declining but not at the next level, there would be the possibility of moving down if the testing positivity and health equity metrics meet the level for two tiers lower, i.e. orange tier levels while in the purple tier.

The red tier requires the case rate to sit between 4.0 and 7.0, the testing positivity between 5.0% and 8.0% and the health equity rate between 5.3% and 8.0%. The orange tier requires the case rate to sit between 1.0 and 3.9, the testing positivity between 2.0 and 4.9% and the health equity rate between 2.2% and 5.2%. The yellow “minimal” tier, the lowest of the four tiers, requires a case rate lower than 1.0, testing positivity below 2.0% and health equity rate lower than 2.2%.

Shawn Raymundo contributed to this report.

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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