Indoor dining is about to return to Los Angeles County, with health officials confirming Thursday they will permit restaurants to again welcome customers into their dining rooms at limited capacity when the county moves into the "red'' tier of the state's four-level economic reopening blueprint.
The county is expected to move into the "red'' tier as early as Monday.
Although the state's "Blueprint for a Safer Economy'' allows indoor dining in the "red'' tier, individual counties are permitted to impose tighter restrictions. Los Angeles County public health officials have repeatedly warned about the danger of COVID-19 spread at restaurants, raising questions about whether they would approve indoor dining when the county advances out of the most-restrictive "purple'' tier.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer referred twice this week to a new federal study that linked in-person dining to increases in COVID cases and deaths.
But the county on Thursday released its "red'' tier reopening plans, and it includes indoor dining at the state-authorized capacity of 25%. The county will require restaurants to have 8 feet of distance between all tables, which will be restricted to a maximum of six people from the same household.
The rules also call for ventilation to be increased "to the maximum extent possible.''
Restaurant servers are already required to wear a face mask and a face shield. With the new rules, the Department of Public Health "strongly recommends'' that employees upgrade their face coverings, through the use of higher-grade N95 or KN95 masks, or a combination of double-masking and a face shield.
Health officials also strongly recommend that all employees be informed about and offered the chance to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Food service workers are already eligible to receive the shots.
Rules for other businesses once the county enters the "red'' tier largely align with state guidance:
- museums, zoos and aquariums can open indoors at 25% of capacity
- gyms and fitness centers can open indoors at 10% capacity, with required masking
- movie theaters can open at 25% capacity with reserved seating to provide at least six feet of distance between patrons
- retail and personal care businesses can increase indoor capacity to 50%
- indoor shopping malls can reopen at 50%, with common areas remaining closed, but food courts can open at 25% capacity and in adherence with the other requirements for indoor restaurants.
Moving to the "red'' tier will also allow the reopening of theme parks as early as April 1 -- including Disneyland in Orange County and Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles County -- at 15% of capacity, with in-state visitors only.
The rules also permit resumption of activities at institutes of higher education, and reopening of in-person instruction for students in grades 7-12. Private indoor gatherings are also permitted for people from up to three different households, with masking and physical distancing. People who are vaccinated can gather in small groups indoors without masking or distancing.
County health officials said they anticipate officially entering the "red'' tier between midnight Monday morning and next Wednesday. The exact time will depend on when the state meets a threshold announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom to administer 2 million doses of COVID vaccine in the state's lowest-income communities.
Newsom said this week the state will meet that threshold by Friday. As of Thursday morning, the state had administered 1,971,784 vaccine doses in those low-income communities. Ferrer said earlier that the county is expected to officially advance to the "red'' tier 48 hours after the state meets the vaccination threshold.
Plan Your Vaccine: How and where to get vaccinated.
Under Newsom's most recent guidelines, when the state reaches the 2-million vaccine milestone in low-income communities, counties will be able to move out of the most restrictive "purple'' tier of the blueprint when their average rate of daily new COVID-19 infections reaches 10 per 100,000 residents -- a looser standard than the current 7 per 100,000 residents.
Under the new guidelines, Los Angeles and Orange counties will both immediately qualify to move to the less-restrictive "red'' tier, since they have both been under the 10 per 100,000 standard for two weeks. Los Angeles County's new case rate is currently 5.2 per 100,000 residents, while Orange County's is 6 per 100,000.
The idea behind the 2 million-dose threshold is to ensure that vaccines are being distributed equitably throughout the state, ensuring that low-income communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are not overlooked in the vaccination effort. Newsom has ordered that 40% of the state's vaccine supply be earmarked to ensure equity in the distribution process.
Ferrer warned the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday that while case numbers and the testing-positivity rate in the county have declined precipitously in recent weeks, things could easily worsen if residents become lax about infection-control measures.
"This is the month I would say -- the month of March, the early part of April -- where we have to be extraordinarily cautious,'' she said. "Because we've been here before. We've been here with reopenings. We've been here with travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas. We've seen what happens around holidays if we're not really careful. ... We've got to keep everybody alive right now so they can get vaccinated and stay alive. So this would be a time for extreme caution.''
She pointed specifically to the spread of variants of virus that causes COVID-19, which can spread more easily from person to person. Ferrer said the variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been increasing its reach in Los Angeles County, and is now believed to be responsible for 10% of all COVID cases in the county.
"Increasingly there's also been concern of a worldwide fourth wave of COVID-19 as cases started to rise in the last week of February, following six weeks of decline, particularly in Europe,'' she said.
On Thursday, the county reported another 101 COVID-19 deaths, although three of those fatalities were actually announced Wednesday by health officials in Long Beach. The new deaths lifted the countywide death toll from throughout the pandemic to 22,304.
Another 1,378 cases were announced by the county. The new cases raised the cumulative pandemic total to 1,208,024.
According to state figures, there were 1,015 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Thursday, with 287 people in intensive care.