2 California counties set to reopen despite stay-home order

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DAISY NGUYEN and CHRISTOPHER WEBER
Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Small groups of people ignored closures and set down their towels and umbrellas on Orange County’s warm beaches on Sunday, defying stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus as pressure to reopen parts of California continues to build.
Cameras from news helicopters captured dozens of people scattered across a stretch of sand known as The Wedge in Newport Beach. The crowds were sparse but offered proof that despite stepped-up patrols and warnings to stay away, some people were determined to get to the beach.
City spokesman John Pope said lifeguards and police officers asked more than 2,500 people to leave. The previous weekend, a heatwave drew tens of thousands of people to Newport Beach, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to shut beaches in Orange County.
A Huntington Beach police spokeswoman said people were cooperating, and no citations had been issued as of Sunday afternoon.
Meanwhile, two counties in Northern California were set to allow many businesses to reopen Monday as a direct challenge to Newsom’s order.
Yuba and Sutter counties north of Sacramento would join Modoc County, which began allowing hair salons, churches, restaurants and the county’s only movie theater to reopen Friday as long as people stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart.
Modoc County Sheriff Tex Dowdy said the zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Modoc’s 9,000 residents was a deciding factor in the allowing for a “staged, safe” reopening. No problems were reported over the weekend, officials said.
Yuba and Sutter counties are not only much bigger with a combined population of about 175,000 people — many of whom commute to jobs in the capital region — but have had 50 confirmed cases of the disease and three deaths.
Jesse Villicana, the owner of Cool Hand Luke’s steakhouse in Yuba City, said 25 employees who were laid off during the stay-at-home order returned to work Sunday to help prepare for the reopening. He was eager to welcome customers back into the bar and dining room but wary of the slow return to business as usual. Customers must sit a booth apart, meaning he can only fill half of the restaurant.
“We were running at 80% capacity before all this. It’s going to be tough to pay all the bills,” Villicana said.
Elsewhere, a variety of businesses from restaurants to hairstylists in rural and more populated areas have opened their doors in individual acts of defiance.
Newsom acknowledged the building economic anxiety while repeatedly teasing the possibility the state could begin relaxing aspects of the restrictions this week.
“We are all impatient,” the governor said during his daily briefing Friday.
But the governor also noted that while hospitalization statistics are heading in a better direction, the state still has a growing number of infections and deaths. More than 2,200 Californians have died from coronavirus and nearly 55,000 have been confirmed to have it, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because of a shortage of testing.
Orange County beach cities argue that most of the people who hit their shores between April 24 to April 26 did practice anti-virus safety measures and fumed that they were being unfairly singled out.
On Friday, a judge refused a request by Huntington Beach and others to block Newsom’s order to close the beaches. Judge Nathan Scott said he weighed the harm the closures caused the city and others, but the virus’s threat to public safety should take priority. He said he will consider the issue again May 11.
In Northern California, Santa Cruz County began on Saturday to close all beaches between 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to let residents visit the beach in the early morning or sunset hours and keep day-trippers away.
Beaches are just the latest focus for frustrations over Newsom’s six-week-old order requiring nearly 40 million residents to remain mostly indoors. Businesses not deemed essential are closed until COVID-19 testing, hospital and death rates indicate the state outbreak is beginning to ease. Millions have been unable to work.
While Newsom has promised a cautious, phased reopening of the state, protesters don’t want to wait.
In Huntington Beach, police estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people gathered for May Day on a beach-side street. In Sacramento, as police lined steps outside the Capitol, protesters on Friday waved signs that said “Defend Freedom” and broke into “U-S-A” chants. A few rallies took place over the weekend, though attendance was significantly smaller.
For the vast majority of people, coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
The fear is that the virus can be spread in close quarters by people who don’t known they’ve contracted it, and allowing too much contact too soon could lead to a second surge of cases.
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Weber reported from Los Angeles.