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Bars, restaurants pay price for California virus surge

UPDATED: Wed., July 1, 2020

By Adam Beam and Kathleen Ronayne Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California took a big step back in reopening its economy on Wednesday as Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down bars, wineries, museums, movie theaters and inside restaurant dining across most of the state for three weeks amid troubling increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

The order affects Los Angeles and 18 other counties where nearly three-quarters of the state’s roughly 40 million people live. The impacted counties are those seeing the most serious uptick in infections and include almost all of Southern California, though not San Diego, which is faring better.

“The bottom line is the spread of this virus continues at a rate that is particularly concerning,” Newsom said.

To encourage greater adherence to health rules, Newsom also said the state is creating “strike teams” of state regulators to more aggressively go after noncompliant businesses. He also is limiting beach access and imposed statewide changes for religious services – no more singing or chanting – and at gyms, where people must wear masks while working out.

For the two weeks ended Monday, California’s confirmed coronavirus cases increased 45% to nearly a quarter-million and hospitalizations increased 52% to 5,077. About 500 more patients were sick enough for intensive care treatment, bringing the state total to 1,528 in ICUs.

The state’s worst outbreak is in Imperial County, an agricultural center along the border with Mexico. Infection rates are 20% – more than double the state average – and hospitals are overwhelmed.

Last week, the state took the unprecedented step of ordering Imperial officials to come up with a new health order. On Wednesday, the most restrictive plan in California was approved – it bars nonessential gatherings of any size, shopping in stores and indoor religious ceremonies.

Other states, including Texas and Florida, have also paused their reopenings after seeing similar spikes in coronavirus cases. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered bars, gyms and movie theaters to close for 30 days and banned large gatherings.

California authorities have said many things contributed to the increase in the state, including people not following the mandate to wear masks and gathering socially with friends and relatives.

Jot Condi, who heads the California Restaurant Association, said the order is devastating for restaurants that have worked to put in place safety measures and reduced seating to meet the state’s requirements for inside dining. The changes have left many with no room to spare on revenue.

“This will be the last straw for a lot of restaurants,” Condi said, adding the state hasn’t provided evidence to specifically show dining in restaurants is helping fuel the increase in virus cases.

Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide stay-home order in March, earning praise from public health officials as virus cases were kept low in the nation’s most populous state for more than two months. But the order devastated the economy, forcing most businesses to close and prompting more than 6.7 million people to file for unemployment benefits.

As the spread of the virus slowed in May, Newsom moved quickly to begin allowing businesses to reopen across the state. Bars got the green light on June 12 and quickly images emerged showing throngs packed tightly together, many not wearing masks as required by the state.

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an epidemiology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the new restrictions could be an “over-response.” He said the state should consider other strategies designed to keep young people away from older people, who are more at risk for the virus.

“It appears we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole. Every time there is an increase in cases we have to take a step backward,” he said.

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