Los Angeles County reopens in-person shopping, worship

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — California moved to further relax its coronavirus restrictions and help the battered economy on Tuesday by permitting barbershops and hair salons to reopen while Los Angeles County, moving more cautiously, said stores and houses of worship can open their doors.

“There’s a lot of people suffering, and we can do this safely,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in announcing the county decision at a news briefing.

The state’s most populous county — and the hardest-hit by the coronavirus — moved to permit in-person shopping and religious services with social distancing restrictions, a day after California announced counties wouldn’t need state permission to do so if certain requirements were met.

Retail stores — including those at shopping malls — can open at 50% capacity. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples can have no more than 25% of building capacity or 100 people. Everyone will be urged to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Flea markets, swap meets and drive-in movies also got the nod.

The decision was a surprise because only days ago, officials were talking about July 4 as a target date for such reopening. But most of California’s 58 counties already have reopened stores, placing L.A. County at an economic disadvantage by limiting its businesses to curbside pickups and deliveries.

Small businesses also had to compete with big-box stores that sold food, considered an essential service under the state’s stay-at-home order.

“More Angelenos will be able to earn a paycheck, pay for the rent, put food on their table” and businesses can “stop counting the days to bankruptcy,” Garcetti said.

The county of 10 million residents isn’t following surrounding counties by permitting restaurants to allow in-person dining but it planned to ask for state permission to move forward more swiftly on Wednesday.

Counties granted permission to speed up their reopenings need to meet certain requirements, which include stable rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations, widespread testing capacity and lower rates of positive tests.

Along with stabilizing hospitalizations, the county has dramatically ramped up testing and Tuesday opened a new facility at Dodger Stadium that can serve 6,000 people a day. Garcetti said it’s the largest testing facility in California and possibly the country.

The county has had 47,822 COVID-19 cases. With only a quarter of the state’s population, it has had 2,143 deaths, more than 60% of the statewide death toll.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom cleared barbershops and hair salons to reopen. As with other reopenings, there are voluminous guidelines. Among them: customers and workers must wear face coverings.

Newsom instituted a stay-at-home order on March 19, creating record unemployment. Under pressure to reopen beyond so-called essential businesses, Newsom unveiled standards earlier this month that allowed counties to open more quickly if they met state requirements.

Last week Newsom relaxed the requirements, paving the way for a flood of restaurant and retail reopenings. All together, 47 of California’s 58 counties received state approval.

“We’re making progress, we’re moving forward, we’re not looking back — but we are walking into the unknown,” Newsom acknowledged during a news conference.

Newsom said he felt confident in proceeding because the state now tests 60,000 people a day and has a massive amount of protective equipment and a plan to deploy 5% of the state’s workforce as contact tracers. These workers can track the spread of the virus to head off outbreaks. He said the state anticipates an increase in the number of cases because of greater testing.

“That’s inevitable, but that’s not in and of itself an alarm bell,” he said. “We believe with the modifications that we have time to test the theory of our case and to make adjustments if indeed we need to dial it back.”

David Relman, a microbiologist and immunologist at Stanford Medicine, noted there’s a lag in information about the virus’s spread given it can take up to 14 days to present in people who are infected.

“The data that you need today to know whether this decision you’re making today is a wise one are not available for as much as two weeks,” he said.

Across the state, hospitalizations for the virus were down nearly 7% over the past two weeks and the number of patients in intensive care was stable, Newsom said. About 100,000 have tested positive for the virus in California and more than 3,800 have died.

Scott Fontana, owner of Christophe Salon in Newport Beach, said he’s hoping to reopen Monday. He still needs to train staff on the new protocols and schedule clients. He said he has a waiting list of about 250 people.

“As soon as Newsom made that announcement today, the phones have not stopped ringing,” he said.

Fontana said he’s slashed expenses but is still concerned about the budget. He said he’ll only be able to use every other chair and isn’t allowed to double-book appointments.

Nail salons still aren’t cleared to open, and hair salons shouldn’t perform services such as eyebrow waxing or facials that require a worker to touch a customers face.

Fred Jones, legal counsel for Professional Beauty Federation of California, said it made no sense to exclude nail salons. He said the state’s license for operating a hair, skin or nail salon establishment come in one package.

“There’s vagueness in the very act of saying hair salons and barbershops can reopen without also including skin and nail. So what happens if you own a shop that does all three areas?” Jones said.

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Ronayne reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles, Amy Taxin in Orange County and Cuneyt Dil in Sacramento contributed.

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