Los Angeles and Orange counties are entering uncharted waters, as a receding coronavirus wave has both regions on the precipice of further reopenings than ever before.
The two counties, the state’s largest and third-largest in population, have now banked one week’s worth of data necessary to progress into the orange tier — a move that would allow a more significant and widespread unlocking of businesses and other public spaces.
Their progression, which could happen as soon as next week if their metrics hold steady, would accelerate the recent dash up the state’s reopening ladder.
Under the state’s reopening strategy, counties are sorted into one of four color-coded tiers — purple, where coronavirus transmission is considered widespread and indoor operations are severely limited or outright suspended across a wide array of business sectors; red; orange; and finally, yellow, where most businesses can be open indoors with modifications.
While California has made tremendous progress in the aftermath of a devastating fall and winter surge, the orange and yellow tiers remain a fairly exclusive, albeit growing, club.
According to state data released Tuesday, a handful of additional counties will move into the orange tier this week: San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, Trinity, Lassen and Yolo.
Also residing in that tier are Mariposa, Plumas and San Mateo counties. Just two counties, Alpine and Sierra, have made it all the way to yellow.
Moving into the red tier this week were Kern, Nevada and Stanislaus counties.
Kern’s progression means the entire southern third of the state has now moved out of the purple tier — a dramatic change from the fall-and-winter surge, which struck the region especially hard.
Thirty-nine California counties, home to a combined 33.4 million residents, are now in the red tier. Only eight — Fresno, Glenn, Inyo, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin and Yuba — remain in the purple.
Tier assignments hinge on three factors: coronavirus case rates, adjusted based on the number of tests performed; the rate of positive test results; and a health-equity metric intended to ensure that the positive test rate in poorer communities is not significantly higher than the county’s overall figure.
Reaching the orange tier requires a county to have an adjusted coronavirus case rate of 3.9 or fewer new cases per 100,000 people each day, a test positivity rate of under 5% and a health equity metric of less than 5.3%.
Both L.A. and Orange counties have checked all those boxes, state data show, and their most recently calculated adjusted case rates were 3.7 and 3.5, respectively.
Counties must log two straight weeks of qualifying data to advance to a less restrictive tier and have to stay in a tier for at least three weeks before moving again.
Alameda, Colusa and Santa Cruz counties, for instance, have banked two straight weeks of orange-worthy data but have to wait to advance because they haven’t yet been in the red tier long enough.
Besides L.A. and Orange counties, other counties that must maintain their metrics to potentially move completely into the orange tier next week are Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Imperial, Modoc, Napa and Tuolumne.
On reaching the orange tier, counties can allow bars to reopen outdoors, with modifications, without needing to serve food.
Additionally, capacity restrictions are lifted in stores (although pandemic safety modifications still apply); allowable indoor capacity increases from 25% to 50% for places of worship, museums, zoos and aquariums; maximum indoor restaurant and movie theater capacity rises from 25% or 100 people, whichever is fewer, to 50% capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer; and indoor gym and yoga studio capacity rises from 10% to 25%.
The capacity limit for outdoor sports and live performances, also effective April 1, rises to 33% for counties in the orange tier.
Even when state criteria are met, however, counties may choose to maintain stricter reopening rules.
The recent sweeping and significant movement of counties through the state’s tier system is made possible by two factors: continued progress in the battle against COVID-19, and a new strategy that eases the criteria required to progress as more of the most vulnerable Californians are vaccinated.
State officials set an initial goal of administering 2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in targeted disadvantaged communities — those within the lowest quartile of a socioeconomic measurement tool called the California Healthy Places Index — and a stretch target of 4 million doses.
To support that effort, the state is now devoting 40% of its available COVID-19 vaccines to residents in those areas.
When California cleared its first self-set vaccine hurdle earlier this month, the state began allowing counties with an adjusted case rate of up to 10 new cases per day per 100,000 people to exit the purple tier. Previously, counties needed to have case rates at or below seven per 100,000 people to move into the red tier.
That lower threshold cleared the way for many counties, including much of Southern California, to enter the red tier quicker than they otherwise would have.
Once the state hits 4 million, the threshold to move into the orange tier will be relaxed from a requirement of under 4.0 new cases per day per 100,000 residents to under 6.0. Entering the yellow tier would necessitate an adjusted daily new case rate below 2.0 per 100,000 people, compared with the current requirement of less than 1.0.
However, that is likely still some time off. As of Tuesday morning, about 2.9 million vaccine doses had been administered in the targeted communities, state data show.