KATHLEEN RONAYNE and ADAM BEAM
SACRAMENTO (AP) — California may be only a few weeks away from making “meaningful changes” to its stay-at-home order, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday, but he warned progress will be jeopardized if people do things like crowd beaches, which occurred over the warm spring weekend.
“This virus doesn’t take the weekends off, this virus doesn’t go home because it’s a beautiful sunny day around our coasts,” he said.
The Democratic governor targeted beachgoers in Orange and Ventura counties, calling them an example of “what not to do” if the state wants to continue its progress fighting the coronavirus. But Orange County officials pushed back against those characterizations, saying people did their best to keep a safe distance while enjoying the sun and sand.
“From what I could tell, all of the individuals that are along the sand, they were placing their umbrellas and they were congregating within their own family unit,” Orange County Executive Officer Frank Kim said. “What I saw was an effort from all of the participants who were using the amenities to adhere to the principle of social distancing.”
Huntington Beach, known as “Surf City USA,” and Newport Beach were the Orange County locations with the largest crowds. Newport officials plan to meet Tuesday to consider shutting its beaches for the next three weekends or closing roads leading to popular locations along the shore.
Newsom’s observation the state is “a few weeks away, not months away” from changes is the most optimistic timeline he has given on easing the stay-at-home order that took effect March 19, though he did not specify what “meaningful” meant. Still, it as a dramatic shift from just three weeks ago, when Newsom and top health officials were projecting a need for at least 50,000 additional hospital beds for a mid-May surge in cases.
The dramatic wave hasn’t materialized. Hospitals have ample bed space and for the last week the numbers of hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients has remained relatively steady. Those are key statistics for Newsom as he gauges when and how to reopen the state.
Newsom said he will outline a strategy on Tuesday for phasing in the reopening of businesses, with different needs based on the type of business and where it’s located. He said he’s turned to other governors in Western States Pact on reopening for guidance and best practices. Colorado and Nevada on Monday joined the pact that also includes Washington and Oregon.
As he works on a reopening plan, Newsom said he does not want to step up enforcement against people who don’t follow the rules. But he urged local governments to reconsider their directives and said the California Highway Patrol is considering more “aggressive enforcement” measures.
“I respect local decision making,” Newsom said. “But I cannot impress upon people more, that the only thing that will set us back is our behavior.”
Newsom’s stay-at-home order established a benchmark for local governments. They were free to establish more stringent restrictions and many in the most populated areas did, while others in rural locations simply followed the state’s lead.
Now some less populated Northern California counties are urging Newsom to let them move more swiftly to reopen while San Francisco Bay Area counties on Monday extended their stay-at-home orders through May.
The rural counties — Sutter, Yuba, Butte, Colusa, Tehama and Glenn —- and 14 small cities in them sent a letter asking the governor noting just 69 of the 500,000 people who there have had confirmed cases of coronavirus and only one person is in intensive care.
“At this point, given the COVID-19 numbers locally — and our enhanced health care capacity — we ask you to allow our counties to exercise local authority to implement a careful and phased reopening of our local economies,” said the letter also signed by the region’s two Republican state lawmakers, Assemblyman James Gallagher and Sen. Jim Nielsen.
The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to the letter. But Gallagher, of Yuba City, said he believes Newsom is open to a regional approach to easing restrictions.
Ron Sullenger, chairman of Sutter County Board of Supervisors, said he hopes Newsom sees the different needs of his county compared to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
“We would like to have him recognize the fact that we’re smart enough to know” what’s needed, he said.
Meantime, the six San Francisco Bay Area counties said it’s too early for them to pull back.
“This global pandemic of COVID-19 is still in its early stages,” the Bay Area counties said in a statement. “The virus spreads easily, testing capacity is limited and expanding slowly, and vaccine development is just beginning. We expect to be responding to COVID-19 in our communities for a long time.”
California has had more than 45,000 coronavirus cases and 1,750 deaths, more than half of them in Los Angeles County, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. However, the number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.
Associated Press reporters Julie Watson in San Diego and Amy Taxin in Orange County contributed.
KATHLEEN RONAYNE and ADAM BEAM