Californians venture outside as state relaxes virus rules

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CHRISTOPHER WEBER and DAISY NGUYEN
Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — As cooped-up California residents ventured outdoors to take advantage of sunshine and relaxed rules to control the spread of coronavirus, authorities said Memorial Day weekend crowds at beaches and parks were manageable Sunday.
Stay-at-home restrictions eased across much of the state, which has seen a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Some 47 of 58 counties have received permission to reopen most stores, restaurants and many public spaces by meeting state standards for controlling the virus.
In the mountain resort community of Big Bear Lake, a steady stream of out-of-town visitors stopped at the Copper Q cafe to pick up to-go coffee and baked goods. The city in San Bernardino County northeast of Los Angeles announced last week that it would not enforce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s safety orders, arguing it has kept COVID-19 cases manageable and there has been significant economic harm.
On Saturday, the county met state requirements for controlling the virus outbreak and was approved by California health officials to join dozens of counties allowed to move deeper into the second of Newsom’s four-phase reopening.
“It’s not packed, but the crowds are decent,” Copper Q manager Ashley Coleman said. “People are keeping their distance, and everyone’s wearing masks of course.”
Many Southern California beaches were open only for swimming, running and other activities. Sunbathing and group activities such as volleyball were prohibited.
Los Angeles County waterfronts saw lighter crowds than anticipated during the first weekend that officials announced reopened bike paths and some seaside parking lots, Department of Beaches and Harbor spokeswoman Nicole Mooradian said.
“People are definitely taking advantage of the bike paths,” she said. “Everyone’s very happy that those are open again.”
Volunteers acted as “goodwill ambassadors” to remind beachgoers to keep moving and not plant chairs and coolers in the sand, Mooradian said. The county partially opened parking lots at popular beaches including Zuma, Dockweiler, Will Rogers, Malibu Surfrider and Torrance.
Mooradian wasn’t aware of anyone receiving citations for violating health orders. But she said officials wouldn’t hesitate to close beaches if they become overcrowded.
To the south in Orange County, people were out walking dogs, biking and surfing at Huntington Beach. Most were not wearing masks. At nearby Sunset Beach, some people were fishing in the ocean. Despite signs urging people to keep moving, some beachgoers sat in chairs on the sand in the early morning.
The easing of the rules in many counties is the most drastic scaling back of the stay-at-home orders since the governor issued them in mid-March, clamping down on all but essential trips and businesses.
Some saw it as a safety test as the state prepared to celebrate its first major holiday weekend since the orders.
Social distancing practices have been cited as the main reason rates of deaths and hospitalizations have slowed in many counties. People were urged to keep their masks on and their guard up while enjoying recently reopened bike paths, hiking trails and beaches.
“It’s nice outside. That doesn’t mean #COVID19 has gone away. Wash your hands. Stay 6 feet apart. Wear a face covering. Be smart. Your actions can literally save lives,” Newsom tweeted Sunday.
Many families flocked to San Francisco’s Baker Beach on Sunday to enjoy the sunny weather and spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sara Stewart, 27, said as the beach got more crowded she retreated to a sand dune to get away from people.
“People were trying their hardest to socially distance, but the more and more crowded it got, the harder it was,” Stewart said.
Volunteers patrolled Dolores Park to offer masks and ensure people were staying in large chalk “social distancing” circles drawn on the grass to show people where to sit. The park has seen large masses of people on sunny weekends, prompting Mayor London Breed to warn that she would shut it down if people weren’t more responsible.
Not everyone rushed to enjoy the outdoors. Several hundred protesters rallied outside Los Angeles City Hall on Sunday and outside the state Capitol in Sacramento on Saturday to demand that Newsom fully lift his restrictions on businesses, religious gatherings and other activities.
Los Angeles County, the state’s largest with 10 million people, is not planning to reopen more widely until the next summer holiday, July 4th, because it has a disproportionately large share of the state’s coronavirus cases and can’t meet even new, relaxed state standards for allowing additional businesses and recreational activities.
The county has been hardest-hit by COVID-19, with more than 44,000 cases and nearly 2,100 deaths. However, public health officials said increased testing — the county is testing more people per capita than the rest of the state — has helped slow the spread of infections because it allows for quicker identification, treatment and isolation of people who have COVID-19 and their close contacts.
The state is still seeing troubling COVID-19 flare-ups, however. More than 150 employees at a Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon, an industrial city five miles south of downtown Los Angeles, contracted the coronavirus. Imperial County, across the border from Mexico, has seen a surge. In Northern California, Mendocino County public health officials said nine people — including the pastor — who participated in a live-streamed Mother’s Day church service have contracted the virus. In Butte County, a second person who attended a Mother’s Day church service in Oroville tested positive.
The new cases come just as Newsom is expected to release guidelines for a partial reopening of houses of worship, which currently are banned from holding in-person services.
For most people, the new coronavirus 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, including pneumonia, and death.
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Nguyen reported from Oakland, California.