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California Officially Lifts Its Curfew and Stay-at-Home Order

If counties allow it, outdoor dining can resume, and restaurants can stay open past 10 p.m.

Sidewalk seating at Tacolicious
California has lifted the ban on outdoor dining for the state’s most populous areas, meaning that this scene on Valenica street could return this week
Patricia Chang

Amid a chaotic vaccination rollout, still-high numbers of COVID-19 infections, a rising call to further tighten restrictions demanding mask use, and a frightening new variant of the virus that has experts warning of a new surge in infections, the state of California made a potentially counterintuitive announcement Monday: The regional stay-at-home orders, which were instituted for wide swaths of the state when coronavirus cases began their most recent uptick in early December, have been lifted. The move allows a number of activities, including outdoor dining, to resume in the state, after restaurants have struggled for months to sustain themselves solely through takeout and delivery business.

In a press release, California Department of Public Health director and state public health officer Dr. Tomás Aragón confirmed the stay-at-home lift, saying that “COVID-19 is still here and still deadly, so our work is not over, but it’s important to recognize our collective actions saved lives and we are turning a critical corner.” According to the DPH, counties across the state will now revert to the state’s color-coded reopening plan, which allows activities on a county-by-county basis dependent on that area’s coronavirus case count. The DPH also says that a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew announced for nonessential activities in November has been lifted, a move that would let restaurants allow dining to continue later in the evening.

As of January 25, most counties in the state remain in the purple (“widespread risk”) tier of reopening, which would allow the resumption of outdoor dining. However, it’s up to individual counties to determine if they want to resume previously restricted activities, and local guidance, if stricter, would prevail. In San Francisco, for example, Mayor London Breed’s office has announced a press event at 1:15 p.m. Monday, presumably to explain how the stay-at-home lift will change things in San Francisco.

The lack of consistent statistics prompted some to react to the stay-at-home lift with skepticism, with some suggesting that statistically, the decision could be premature, and others noting the dissonance of the state’s still-high death rate and the reopening news. As widely noted, Newsom and California’s Department of Public Health had refused to provide daily regional ICU capacity percentages for more than a week, saying only that the Bay Area, Southern California, and San Joaquin Valley remain below the required threshold of 15 percent availability of ICU beds throughout the regional hospital networks. That’s left struggling restaurateurs, as well as local officials, scratching their heads and wondering if and when things might change for their areas.

The Bay Area News Group reports, however, that based on data it’s compiled, as of this past weekend, California has seen its lowest COVID-19 case rates since Christmas: “At about 33,600 per day over the past week, California is averaging its fewest cases since mid-December, prior to its pre-Christmas peak, and has cut its rate of new cases by nearly a quarter from just a week ago,” reporter Evan Webeck writes.

Data announced Saturday suggested that the Bay Area, at least, would be allowed to reopen under the soon-to-be-past system. According to state data, the Bay Area’s ICU bed capacity is at 23.4 percent, Southern California remains at 0 capacity, and the San Joaquin Valley region is at 1.3 percent.

Others asked why, just days after yet another, seemingly more infectious variant of COVID-19 was discovered in the state, restrictions would be loosened instead of tightened. It’s a good question. The LA Times reports that a new, so-called “homegrown” variant of COVID-19 — one called B.1.426 that differs from the B.1.1.7 first identified in Britain — accounted for nearly a quarter of the state’s cases in the final weeks of 2020. According to Santa Clara County health officer Dr. Sarah Cody, the new variation seems to spread even more quickly than the other versions of the disease and might have been behind the current surge in infections.

Speaking with the SF Chronicle, UCSF researcher Dr. Charles Chiu, whose team at the UCSF-Abbott Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center was first to report the variant, says that “we don’t know what variants may be circulating or emerging. It becomes very challenging for us to fight an enemy if we don’t know what the enemy is.” Dr. Catherine Blish, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Stanford University, tells ABC 7 that the new variants can spread 30 to 70 percent faster than the earlier versions of the disease.

Of course, one of the best ways to fight COVID-19 and its emerging mutations is by vaccination, but that’s not something that California has seen much success with yet. The state has struggled to vaccinate the most vulnerable of its 39.5 million residents, hamstrung by short supplies, and — according to state and local officials — fumbling when it comes to communication with the local officials and organizations tasked with getting shots into arms and leaving residents confused about if or when they might be vaccinated. According to Bloomberg, as of January 24, only 2.3 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the state, and only 346,000 people have received a second dose of the two-part shot. That means California is ranked 45th in the country in terms of the percent of population inoculated.

The slow speed of the vaccination process is why so many health officials are now urging stricter guidance around the use of face coverings. CNN reports that highly protective masks, like the N95 mask, could be the key to ending the pandemic, with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Abraar Karan saying that in situations with “prolonged contact,” such as sit-down dining, “cloth masks alone are not going to block aerosols” that could cause COVID-19 infection.

“If we have better personal protection for people, they can more safely go back to work. They can more safely re-engage, especially if testing and tracing is not where we need it to be,” Karan says.

Of course, all that flies out the window when it comes to extended contact that’s unmasked, as one might expect from, say, outdoor dining. It’s exactly that paradox that prompted an angry tweetstorm from Stanford doctor Jorge A. Caballero, who says that “The data does NOT support lifting restrictions— this would be Newsom caving to political pressure, again,” perhaps referring to an anti-vaccination/Republican-led recall effort against the governor. Caballero warns that even now, the devastating surge in Southern California “is moving up the state: through the central valley and into the SF Bay Area.”

But for now, restaurateurs in San Francisco are focused less on projections and more on what local officials will announce. “We look forward to the Mayor’s press conference at 1:15 when we expect that the city will announce the reopening of outdoor dining later this week,” San Francisco dining lobby the Golden Gate Restaurant Association said in a statement. “This is a huge step forward for the San Francisco restaurant community and the city at large.”