California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the California justice department on September 18, 2019 in Sacramento, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

Newsom: Some California businesses could reopen within weeks as state fights coronavirus

Governor says K-12 schools could reopen early this summer to make up for lost learning time

California businesses seen as presenting less risk of spreading the coronavirus could open in the near future under a plan Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled Tuesday, the first of several slow steps toward easing the statewide shutdown order.

“We believe we are weeks, not months, away from making meaningful modifications,” of the current restrictions, Newsom said.

But Newsom’s announcement of a four-phase plan did not come with a guaranteed timetable. He said while current public health indicators such as hospitalizations and testing capacity look promising, additional progress needs to be made.

“Politics will not drive our decision making. Protests won’t drive our decision making. Political pressure will not drive our decision making,” he said.

The plan presented Tuesday envisions four distinct phases for ending the shutdown. The governor said the state is currently in the first phase, marked by efforts to provide an economic safety net for low-wage workers who might otherwise work when sick and encouraging the use of face coverings by residents when in places where they cannot practice safe physical distancing.

The second phase, he said, would allow select businesses to reopen. Those would be deemed “lower risk” and include more curbside options for retail locations, manufacturing sites and small firms with few in-person customers. The change would also loosen limits on access to public spaces, likely including some parks.

Particularly notable is that Newsom’s second phase might include a plan for allowing some K-12 campuses to either offer summer school programs or consider an earlier start to the new school year in order to make up some of the lost educational opportunities. It also would allow more child care facilities to resume operations.

But the proposal comes with sizable caveats. Most importantly, it makes clear that state officials, not local leaders, will decide when to proceed. It also will require businesses that open to keep as many people as possible working from home. And it envisions that employers must be able to ensure that they have established safe workplace conditions.

The program outlined does not offer information on who enforces the rules, or how that enforcement will take place. The statewide order issued by the governor last month has largely relied on local government officials to make sure it’s followed.

Newsom offered no guarantees as to when the new plan would be implemented. Key to the change would be adequate protections for places such as skilled nursing facilities and so-called “congregate” settings, including jails and prisons. The plan requires that officials in the state’s 58 counties have the ability to perform robust contact tracing to ensure they can track potential spread of the coronavirus.

It also allows some variations by region, but only after the creation of a “statewide COVID-19 surveillance system” through more testing, according to a document provided by the Newsom administration.

The governor’s decision to embrace a more methodical plan for easing the stay-at-home mandate, which has been in place for almost six weeks, comes amid mounting pressure from some local officials to reopen the state sooner rather than later. Those pleas for a more specific timetable, plus images of Californians flocking to the beaches over the weekend, stand in contrast to reports that some areas _ most notably, Los Angeles County _ are still struggling to get a handle on the public health crisis.

Newsom acknowledged the balancing act that lies ahead, insisting that not all regions of the state would be allowed to loosen the shutdown rules at the same time. Two additional phases are envisioned in his new plan, including reopening hair salons and personal care businesses and eventually allowing large gatherings such as sporting events. But there no certainty was provided that those phases could arrive anytime soon.

The announcement comes after several governors across the country said they plan to ease stay-at-home orders in the days and weeks ahead.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a similar phased-in plan to reopen his state on May 15, starting with northern communities that have been less affected by the pandemic than the greater New York City area. Govs. Jared Polis of Colorado, a Democrat, and Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, issued similar pronouncements, echoing Newsom’s comments that the dates for reopening depend on daily assessments of the spread of the virus.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of California lawmakers, mayors and other elected officials from six counties in the state’s northern interior urged Newsom to allow them to ease the restrictions and start the process of reopening their economies. They said the spread of the coronavirus in the region has subsided, citing only one person with the virus who was hospitalized in an intensive care unit as the week began.

“We believe that the local public health data, in addition to our area’s ability to continue monitoring cases, should allow our counties to soon begin a science-based, thoughtful reopening of our economy, consistent with national guidelines, which would allow our residents to get back to work,” the letter to Newsom stated.

Last week, San Luis Obispo County officials said they have bent the coronavirus curve and were beginning to craft their own phased approach to allow some businesses to reopen. That request came just days after Ventura County officials modified a stay-at-home order to permit some businesses to reopen and some gatherings to take place.

To date, Newsom has remained focused on a single public message: patience.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said Thursday. The governor has also frequently noted that key indicators on hospitalizations and deaths have fluctuated, though in recent days he has also admitted those variations have, for the most part, grown smaller.

Newsom has also sought to link California’s approach to a less restrictive policy to those crafted by governors in neighboring states. Earlier this month, he and his counterparts in Washington and Oregon announced “a regional pact to recovery” from the coronavirus crisis and agreed to work together to develop a plan to lift restrictions on daily life and reopen economies along the West Coast. Nevada and Colorado on Monday announced they would join the regional pact.

By John Myers, Taryn Luna and Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times

Bay Area NewsCaliforniaCoronavirus

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