December 2, 2022


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

As L.A. eyes orange COVID tier, are more reopenings coming?

A wave of reopenings has recently washed over California. Could more be around the corner?

In Los Angeles County, which only days ago moved into the red tier for the first time since the state unveiled its four-category color-coded coronavirus reopening blueprint, officials are already eyeing the possibility of further advancement.

“Should our case numbers continue to decline, our recovery journey could land us in the less restrictive orange tier in April,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement Tuesday. “This is only possible if we all do our part to keep each other safe.”

With most counties having now emerged from California’s purple tier and freed themselves from the strictest limitations on activities and businesses imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, attention is turning to the path ahead and how quickly a wider economic unlocking could take place.

Some areas, like L.A., are poised to move forward given a little time and a bit of improvement. Others could forge ahead as soon as next week provided their numbers stay steady.

That the possibility of more movement exists at all reflects two related trends: California continuing to gain ground in its battle against COVID-19 and doses of vaccine steadily being administered.

“I believe that, as more people are vaccinated and as we continue to follow public health safety measures, we can continue reopenings without threatening each other’s health,” Ferrer said.

Under California’s reopening strategy, counties are sorted into one of four tiers — purple, where coronavirus transmission is considered widespread and indoor operations are suspended or severely limited across a wide swath of business sectors; red; orange; and finally, yellow, where most businesses can be open indoors with modifications.

Tiers are assigned based on three factors: COVID-19 case rates, the rate of positive test results and a health-equity metric intended to ensure that the positive test rate in poorer communities is not significantly higher than the county’s overall figure.

Counties need to record two straight weeks of qualifying data to advance to a less-restrictive tier and must remain in a tier for at least three weeks before moving again.

To move from the red to orange tier, a county must have an adjusted coronavirus case rate of 3.9 or fewer new cases per 100,000 people each day, a test positivity rate of under 5% and a health equity metric of less than 5.3%.

According to the latest data released Tuesday, L.A. County checked both the health equity and positivity rate boxes, but its calculated case rate — 4.1 — was still a tad too high. The county remains two weeks away, at best, from potentially advancing.

Others are positioned to do so sooner, however. Per state data, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Trinity, Lassen and Yolo counties could all enter the orange tier next week, provided their numbers hold.

Currently, four counties — Plumas, Sierra, Mariposa and San Mateo — are in the orange tier, and only Alpine County has made it all the way to yellow.

Counties that reach the orange tier can allow bars to reopen outdoors, with modifications, without needing to serve food.

Additionally, capacity restrictions are lifted in stores (although pandemic safety modifications still apply); allowable indoor capacity increases from 25% to 50% for places of worship, museums, zoos and aquariums; maximum indoor restaurant and movie theater capacity rises from 25% or 100 people, whichever is fewer, to 50% capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer; and indoor gym and yoga studio capacity rises from 10% to 25%.

Local-level health officials can opt to maintain stricter standards than those outlined in the tier framework.

Only recently have a significant number of counties begun to escape the purple tier following the state’s horrific fall and winter coronavirus surge. As of this week, only 11 counties remained in that category: Glenn, Yuba, Nevada, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Inyo and Kern.

Within the past week, 23 of the state’s 58 counties have advanced into the red tier, including L.A., San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Sacramento and Ventura.

“We saw a lot of movement last week; we’ve seen a lot of movement this week; you’re going to see even more movement next week,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.

Progressing from the purple tier was made easier after state officials redrafted the reopening roadmap upon meeting a goal of administering 2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in California’s most disadvantaged communities.

When that happened last Friday, the state began allowing counties with an adjusted case rate of up to 10 new cases per day per 100,000 people to exit the purple tier. Previously, counties needed to have case rates at or below seven per 100,000 people to move into the red tier.

The criteria would loosen further when the state hits its next target of doling out 4 million doses in targeted areas — those within the lowest quartile of a socioeconomic measurement tool called the California Healthy Places Index.

After reaching that mark, the threshold to move into the orange tier would be relaxed from a requirement of under 4.0 new cases per day per 100,000 residents to under 6.0. Entering the yellow tier would necessitate an adjusted daily new case rate below 2.0 per 100,000 people, compared with the current requirement of less than 1.0.

While those changes would further accelerate the pace of reopenings, they remain some distance off. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 2.4 million vaccine doses had been administered in the communities of focus, according to the state.

Earlier this month, officials announced that California would begin dedicating 40% of its available supplies for residents in those most disadvantaged areas — an allotment state officials say is aimed at addressing the stubborn inequities that have dogged the vaccine rollout.

Despite the dedication, the imbalance remains, and fewer vaccines have been administered in communities on the lowest end of the index than any other quartile. By comparison, nearly 4 million shots have been given out in the highest-quartile areas.

“We’re still not close to where we need to be,” Newsom said. “I’m looking at these numbers every day — even two weeks into this, those numbers are stubborn.”

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.